Film Review: “Soft & Quiet” — White Tyranny
By Peg Aloi
Watching the action unfold may well make audience members extremely uncomfortable, even leave some traumatized. That may well be the point.
Soft & Quiet, directed by Beth de Araújo. Available on video on demand.
This incendiary debut by Beth de Araújo is a smart, satirical, and terrifying thriller that gets my vote for the scariest film of 2022. The film starts out immediately with a tense situation. A young white woman, Emily (Stefanie Estes) performs a hasty pregnancy test in a public restroom. She is distraught when she sees the result and wipes away tears. We then see she is in a school where she teaches, about to leave for the day. As she exits the building she walks past an African American member of the janitorial staff who is wheeling a cart of supplies. Emily sees a young boy, Brian, who was in one of her classes the previous year. His mother is late picking him up, so Emily decides to keep him company. They chat for a few minutes, then something odd happens. Emily glances at the janitorial worker just inside and tells Brian he must walk in and tell the worker to stop mopping until after he leaves. Emily is indignant that the wet floors might cause someone to fall. One wonders: why doesn’t Emily make the request herself? Perhaps she is still upset about her pregnancy test results, but her command to Brian comes off as imperious and manipulative. There’s an uneasy vibe here (racist much, Emily?) that erases some of the viewer’s sympathy for Emily’s plight. But, with this apprehensive note, Soft and Quiet has only begun its slow burning trajectory to utter mayhem.
Brian’s mother (another white woman) finally arrives. The two share a brief conversation. Emily complains about the janitor and Brian’s mother agrees. Emily then walks a short way (all of this unfolding in real time with limited camera shots, adding to the odd sense of mystery and tension) to what looks like a fancy log cabin surrounded by a wooded park with benches. Carrying a foil-wrapped pie, Emily encounters another young white woman on the grounds and asks where she’s going. The young woman, Leslie (It Comes At Night’s Olivia Luccardi) responds in a matter of fact way that she’s meeting someone. Emily seems satisfied that this person is legitimately invited to the gathering. The building turns out to be a modern church with a meeting space. Inside, several white women have already gathered; there’s a table full of sweet treats and coffee. Emily unwraps her cherry pie which has a crude swastika carved into the top. One of the other women asks if this is a joke. Emily smiles. The conversation begins.
The women introduce themselves and begin to share stories. All have one thing in common; they feel victimized by their own racism. They don’t feel “safe” expressing how they feel in public. They claim not to hate anyone; they are just following “common sense.” People of color, they believe, have “unfair advantages” that they don’t have as white women. They decry the current “woke” state of politics and culture. Mostly, they’re angry. The women have varied backgrounds: Stefanie is an attractive, married elementary school teacher. Leslie, who is outspoken and likes to make jokes, wears a black leather jacket and has numerous tattoos. She mentions having been in prison. Kim (Dana Millican) owns a store where Leslie works, and mentions she needs to start homeschooling her kids immediately. Alice (Rebekah Wiggins) is a well-dressed woman who drops the n-word casually. Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta), like Leslie, is a bit younger than the rest of the women. She is a bit of a party girl who dresses provocatively. Another woman mentions her membership in more than one white supremacy group. She says that some people might find that “scary” — but smiles and states that she doesn’t “look scary.” The rest of the women nod knowingly. Emily describes her strategy of taking a ”soft” approach to implementing her agenda, speaking quietly and presenting as an educated suburban mom. See, we’re not scary at all: we’re the women you see every week at soccer games and at Whole Foods and at church.
As the meeting progresses, the women’s inhibitions relax once they realize they’re among like-minded monsters. Even in this “safe space,” where the women feel comfortable sharing their racist outlooks, there’s concern about exposure. When Marjorie mentions making a list of where “all the illegal immigrants live” Emily says they have to be careful not to leave a paper trail that leads back to them. Apparently, her goal is to create a group of covert white supremacy activists. At one point, the priest who rented the space to Emily (who has apparently overheard some of the conversation) signals to her and says quietly but unequivocally that they all need to leave. Emily suggests they all meet back at her house. She will drive and pick up some wine at Kim’s store on the way.
At the store, two young Asian women enter just before closing. Kim refuses them service. One of them recognizes Emily from a traumatic event some years ago, and makes a comment that triggers an uncomfortable confrontation. Things spin out of control. The women who were at the meeting gather at Emily’s house and, after some alcoholic drinks, hatch a plan for revenge. Things spin further out of control. No plot spoilers here, but it’s worth saying that every outrageous and horrible thing that happens from that point on in Soft & Quiet is quite plausible. (In fact, this story was inspired by real events.) Watching the action unfold may well make audience members extremely uncomfortable, even leave some traumatized. That may well be the point. Do not look away. Beth de Araújo is a brave and bold new filmmaker and this feature debut is nothing short of stunning.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.