Soft & Quiet masterfully plunges its viewers headfirst into some of the ugliest, most stomach-churning actions that humanity has proven itself capable of.
Of all the films that I had lined up to see at South By Southwest, Soft & Quiet is the one that I was the most nervous about. Not because I was wary of its quality, but because of its setup and subject matter. The audience was even warned about its disturbing content right before the film started. This horror film – yes, horror film – is Beth de Araújo’s directorial debut, and already she has made it abundantly clear that she is a cinematic force to be reckoned with.
Soft & Quiet plays out in real time, through one continuous shot of a single late afternoon and evening, as we follow elementary school teacher Emily (Stefanie Estes) who takes part in a meeting of “Daughters for Aryan Unity”, a group of alt-right white supremacist women … and you can immediately see why this would be an intimidating film to watch. But things take an even darker turn than some might imagine when this group comes across two Asian sisters at a local convenience store. After coming to blows with them, the group then wants to take their own form of revenge, setting off a series of nightmarish, disturbing events.
I call Soft & Quiet a horror film because, while it doesn’t fit into the genre in a conventional sense, this film is scary. In fact, it’s terrifying, because it shines a painful spotlight on the terrifying reality of what racism, entitlement, narrow minds, and volatile emotions lead to when brought to their worst extremes. But what makes Soft & Quiet especially ingenious is how it works up to these extremes. This film gradually escalates the heinous words and actions that Emily and her gang perform and how much of a danger they pose. In the first few minutes we spend with Emily, it’s not even apparent that she’s motivated specifically by racism, but she instead comes across as just an entitled woman with misguided views on what justifies asserting oneself over (which is still not good, especially when she preaches it to a little kid). But the initial subtle clues of her darker nature are then made much clearer when we see her and the rest of the women explicitly discuss their uneducated and racist beliefs.
This is also where you see how amazing the performances are from everyone. Never do these characters come across as exaggerations or satirical representations of the kinds of alt-right monsters they portray. I completely believe that they believe that every word they’re saying is true, which is what makes them especially uncomfortable to watch even earlier on. Every woman in this group is driven by some clearly selfish motivation, whether that be losing something like a job that they feel they deserve, financial struggles, a need to dominate in life wherever possible, being raised to think a certain way, or anything else that can be misattributed to progress made in society. Even though none of these factors are excuses for these people not knowing better, their presence adds dimension and therefore believability to why the group holds the viewpoints they hold. A lot can be inferred just from these windows into their lives.
Soft & Quiet also sheds light on an aspect of such dangerous racism that so many movies dealing with the subject matter miss: subtlety. Yes, the violent hate crimes we’re all tragically used to seeing are very easy to spot, but the underbelly of hate that would lead to such crimes is not … as in, not everyone who holds and expresses such terrible beliefs is obvious in whether or not they’ll act on those beliefs so violently. As is discussed by the characters themselves, and as was brought up by Beth de Araújo after the film, such radical extremists have learned to condone themselves and carry out their practices in a “soft” and “quiet” manner, so as to not lose sympathy or scare away any potential recruits. Such sinister plotting needs to be recognized, and it feels so realistic here that some viewers might even initially think that these women’s sermons are dismissible as delusional but irrelevant crazy talk that won’t really amount to anything serious.
This is what makes the real-time approach of Soft & Quiet so perfect. When you see these “protagonists” go from spouting racist rhetoric (already bad on its own) in the first act, to bullying and harassing minorities in the second act, to committing irredeemably monstrous acts in the third act, all with absolutely no jumps or pauses in that progression, you see why it’s so important to stop hate at every level, because you never know how far such hate could go or already has gone. When Soft & Quiet takes that to its peak in the third act, we bear witness to one of the most disturbing, sickening sequences I’ve ever seen in any film. The performances, cinematography, and one-shot filmmaking make it feel like you’re watching an actual assault play out right before your eyes. It got the kind of physical reaction out of me that few movies have achieved. I could actually feel my stomach churning and see my arms trembling as I held them over my face, and the cold, disturbingly quiet aftermath of the attack only made the nauseating feeling sink in even more. I was anticipating a lot of discomfort and hard-to-watch moments in Soft & Quiet, but this film exceeded even those expectations.
The cinematography from Greta Zozula can best be described as spontaneous yet focused. Clearly everything was planned out well in advance, but the shots feel so in-the-moment while still framing and blocking everything and everyone exactly as needed to get the strongest reactions from the audience. You keep your eyes on the tiniest of details, and you’re rewarded more often than not when you catch something crucial in those details. I’m amazed by how the crew were able to set up the lighting to work out perfectly to look like one take as we go from late afternoon to the dreary darkness of night to match the increasing darkness of the film’s events. As phenomenal as the cinematography has been for the flashier films of SXSW, Soft & Quiet’smay have my vote for the best in the festival out of what I’ve seen. I would be massively impressed if only 70% of the film was able to look this good considering what it’s trying to do, let alone the near-flawlessness of the execution we get.
Soft & Quiet, if it wasn’t painfully clear enough by now, is not a film that you can just pop in and watch with ease, nor should you. It’s a relentlessly dark, gruesome horror film that was clearly made from a place of desperate urgency and raw, unbridled rage, as frightening for the horrors on the screen as the ways they mirror the horrors of reality. You will need a hot shower to cleanse yourself from the filth that this film plunges you into. I give my absolute highest possible recommendation for those who feel they can stomach something like this. For reasons both obvious and surprising, this film has left an impact on me that’s anything but soft and quiet.
Soft & Quiet premiered at SXSW 2022 on March 12, 2022, and will be released in US theaters and on VOD on November 4.