The last few weeks have seen a shocking rise in racist and hate speech in America. For decades, these phenomena have been hidden in the shadows, but the world’s access to new methods of communication and infinite information has increased the exposure of these ideas. Sadly, increased exposure has also opened the door to radicalization and disinformation. The brazen hate speech remains scary because it still only represents a small portion of the discourse behind closed doors. Director Beth de Araújo takes this issue head-on with her stunning debut thriller, Soft & Quiet, following a group of women who have started a new hate group. Produced by Blumhouse and distributed by Momentum Pictures, Soft & Quiet tells an upsetting but all-too-common tale of white supremacy.
Emily (Stefanie Estes) seems like a compassionate and caring teacher at the local school. However, after leaving work, she leads a meeting of white supremacists at her local church. Most of those in attendance are women she’s known for years, including her friend Kim (Dana Millican). The other members have recruited two younger women who have begun to embrace the philosophies of the movement. Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta) seems more unsure of her attendance until receiving positive feedback for her anger after she’s passed over for a promotion. Meanwhile, newcomer Leslie (Olivia Luccardi) represents a wildcard to the group, seemingly coming unhinged and overreacting. When the four women run into Anne (Melissa Paulo) and Lily (Cissy Ly), the women march toward a far more upsetting and dangerous clash.
Araújo’s arrival on the scene heralds an important conversation for Americans. In a world where white supremacist ideology and rhetoric have become far more commonplace, we must acknowledge our proximity to it. The jokes and humor associated with these acts are not funny. There is no wiggle room. Instead, diseases like hate and anger only push people and society towards extremist ideas. What’s often under-discussed is that the people actively perpetuating these ideas know what they are doing. Yet, they feign ignorance to continue to act in the way they feel.
The exploration of Emily as a woman who exhibits compassion towards some and hate towards others makes Soft & Quiet an essential piece of the discussion. Araújo does not pretend that these people are incapable of empathy. In fact, it is their ability to empathize with those who feel lost that makes their recruiting efforts successful. Multiple times throughout Soft & Quiet, it feels as if Emily or Marjorie will realize they’ve gone too far. Yet instead, they keep moving forward and actively perpetuate their hateful ideology. Whether driven to this line of thinking because of events in their family’s past or because they seek control in their own lives, characters with these ideologies recognize basic right and wrong. They just believe they are entitled to more than the rest of us.
The filmmaking on display allows Soft & Quiet to ratchet up the tension in seconds. Shot with a roving camera, DP Greta Zozula captures most of the events in the film in real time. The angles selected feel reminiscent of stalkers in Manhunter and Sinister, yet allow us to see the emotion cross over our subject’s faces. Just as the characters wish to exhibit their power and control, the complete mobility of the camera makes it very clear that Zozula and Araújo are locked into what they want us to see. No shot is accidental, and every purposeful glance opens the door for meaning.
The performances from Estes, Luccardi, and Paulo stand out. Estes gets most of the camera’s attention, and as a result, we see the minute changes in her physicality from scene to scene. Her story shows the slippery slope from hateful dialogue to full-out violence. Luccardi gets the showiest role in the film, becoming an explosive catalyst that turns the story’s direction. The menace and control is the most disturbing aspect of her character because even when she seems to have lost any semblance of decency, there’s a method to every step of madness. The way Luccardi brings these elements out, often in the middle of tense back-and-forth dialogue, showcases her talent.
Finally, Paulo’s subdued performance depicts the image of a person consistently degraded and destroyed by these behaviors. Hate has been present against her at every stage of her life. There’s no limit to what will surprise her anymore, and her fear is palpable. She’s already suffered demoralization, trauma, and hate for her skin color. Her haunted look chills to the bone.
Soft & Quiet hammers home the dangers of these movements from beginning to end today. While many think fascism and Nazi ideology are a thing of the past, Araújo clarifies her opinion. These are ideas that are dangerous and prevalent. These will women will remain in the shadows because of their effective tactics in converting those to their cause. If we leave them to their work without establishing an alternate path, we will only see the worrying trends of hate speech and hate crimes become commonplace statistics. It’s a blistering depiction of America today and a warranted one at that.