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The Quiet

Thereís a Monster in the House

Directed by Jamie Babbit (But Iím a Cheerleader), The Quiet is the latest entry in a in the suburban/teen angst genre. The movie covers the same territory that American Beauty mined for commercial and critical success in 1999. But after its critique of suburban conformity and hypocrisy, is there anything left to say on the subject?

Assuming, for the sake of argument, American Beauty's accuracy in depicting upper-middle class suburbia, any film that follows in its footsteps has to, at minimum, offer a different take on suburban angst. Alas, The Quiet doesn't, instead offering an uneven satire/black comedy that lurches from serious drama to black comedy and back again.

Dot (Camilla Belle), a newly orphaned deaf/mute teenager, comes to live with her godparents, Paul Deer (Martin Donovan), an architect and pillar of the community, and Olivia (Edie Falco), a homemaker obsessed with redecorating her house, room by room. Paul and Oliviaís daughter, Nina (Elisha Cuthbert), a popular cheerleader, instantly resents Dotís presence, treating Dot with contempt and condescension. Ninaís best friend and fellow cheerleader, Michelle (Katy Mixon), torments Dot with equal glee. Misery seems to be all Dot can expect from her new life with the Deers. The impassive, passive Dot seems to take solace, though, from the Deerís expensive piano, which sits unplayed in their sparsely furnished living room.

Not all is well at the Deers however. While Olivia obsesses over redecorating her house and drowning her ennui in prescription tranquilizers, Paul finds comfort through an extramarital relationship. Ninaís rude behavior hides troubling secrets of her own. One by one, Olivia, Paul, and Nina slip into confessional mode, revealing darker, more disturbing secrets to the deaf Dot, whom they assume canít hear them (or read their lips). Dot looks all set for a prolonged bout of suburban teenage angst, until popular basketball player and lab partner, Connor (Shawn Ashmore), becomes enamored with the passive, impassive Dot.

Performance wise, The Quiet belongs to Camilla Belle and Elisha Cuthbert. Belle has the more difficult role, playing an essentially passive, reactive character that, of course, canít speak. She has to act through body language and facial expressions. Belle mostly carries it off, but even a talented actress can only do so much with such a passive role. The Quiet cheats by giving Dot to share her thoughts through voice over narration. Cuthbert acquits herself well in the more active, substantive role (again, for the most part), but her performance is undermined by the questionable decision to put her character in skimpy clothing (twice in just her underwear). Martin Donovan brings a low-grade intensity to his role as the twisted Deer patriarch, while Eddie Falco struggles with an underwritten role that gives her minimal screen time (but two solid scenes to expose her characterís frailties).

Story wise, The Quiet deserves some credit for originality. Screenwriters Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft don't seem particularly interested in going where other teen/suburban angst films have gone before. The character-based revelations we expect to unfold slowly over time are given away early (i.e., the secret shared by Nina and her father), instead taking those early revelations as pivot points for taking The Quiet through several switchbacks. In other words, we don't get what we expect and that's usually a good thing, whether we're talking about mainstream Hollywood films or indie efforts. Different, though, isn't always better.

Unfortunately, itís hard to get around the credibility-stretching (some might argue credibility-breaking) premise. The central conceit, Dot's deafness as a catalyst for the confessions of the other characters around her, is at first handled deftly, especially as we get to hear Dotís Heathers-style social commentary in counterpoint, but each new confession becomes less believable than the last.

Babbit, Nazemian and Schraft simply can't decide if they want The Quiet to be regarded as serious drama, social satire, or black comedy. With the central revelations straight out of an After School Special or a made-for-Lifetime television feature, it's hard to believe Nazemian and Schraft expected moviegoers to sympathize with the characters that they themselves treat ironically.

Babbit contributes to whatever effectiveness The Quiet has by taking advantage of budgetary restrictions. In this case, Babbit shot the film on high-definition video and rather than attempt to hide HD videoís limitations, she exaggerates them. HD video has a tendency to create ghostly traces as characters move on screen. The video artifacts, lighting, night-time shooting, and sparse sets end up creating an oneiric, fairy-tale quality that helps to balances out the undercurrent of violence that permeates the charactersí actions. Still, Babbit doesnít seem capable of overcoming The Quietís screenplay-based flaws. The movieís denouement leaves Nina and Dot in a state of limbo thatís as emotionally unsatisfying as everything thatís come before.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars