A Room of One’s Own: Nathan Silver’s Uncomfortable Familial Exploration
Compelling, observant, and uncomfortably funny, Nathan Silver’s latest feature, Exit Elena, is pleasant surprise, a testament of achievement with a shoe string budget. Appearing at first as a docudrama about a live-in nurse, Silver efficiently and swiftly gives us a fast paced exercise of fractured family dynamics, strange socializations centered on an abstract and mysterious woman, and a subtle subtext to ponder.
Elena (Kia Davis), is a newly licensed live-in nurse. A quiet and timid sort, she quickly gets offered a job to care for Florence (Gert O’Connell). Except Florence’s daughter-in-law, Cindy Akerman (Cindy Silver), neglected to tell husband Jim (Jim Chiros) that she hired a live-in nurse. And so immediately, Elena is thrust into an awkward family dynamic, lorded over by the extremely overbearing Cindy, who constantly bickers with her out-of-touch husband and quickly develops a motherly nagging ritual with her employee. Insisting that Elena wear her own clothes and not appear in uniform, Cindy seems hellbent on making Elena a “family member,” constantly blurring professional lines, complaining about Elena during a supervisory check-in that she isn’t friendly or personable enough. Forcing Elena into joining her for a Zumba dance class, much to Elena’s discomfort, she’s soon trying to set up the shy nurse with her potentially troubled son, Nathan (Nathan Silver), a young man that shares his mother’s lack of boundary issues. But when Florence suffers a fall and must stay at the hospital for an extended amount of time, and the awkward attempts to create a romantic relationship between Elena and her son don’t seem to be working, Cindy has to ask the timid nurse to leave. It seems Elena has nowhere else to go, but her interactions with the Akermans aren’t quite finished.
Kia Davis gives a quiet, subtle performance, her expression often dazed, unsure of how to respond to the onslaught of the overbearing woman that hires her. Silver, like Lena Dunham, casts himself and his mother as warped versions of themselves, culling a tremendously entertaining and authentic performance from his mother, who not only steals most of the scenes but manages to transition from being an offputting nag to a sympathetic mother figure. Presented in 4:3 format, and shot with hand-held digital cameras, there’s an intimate, home video feel to Exit Elena which gives it a docudrama vibe. Seemingly an exercise in social cues, there’s much to uncomfortably squirm over in Silver’s film, which elicits plenty of awkward laughs. But he doesn’t give us a lot of background information on Elena. We meet her as she’s newly licensed and one can’t blame her for really opening up to the Akerman’s. At one point, having had too much to drink, she sings a haunting Serbian love song, which she had learned from her grandmother. There’s a lot of hints about Elena’s past that are never quite made clear, and wisely so, as our lack of knowledge only helps to make her interactions all the more unsettling.
When Elena is asked to leave, it’s clear she has nowhere else to go, holing up in a hotel and stealing clothing. But Silver draws an intriguing parallel between Elena and the Akerman’s cat, both plucked secretively into the Akerman household by wily Cindy, both creatures to be used for her business and/or pleasure as needed. When a drunken Nathan tries to awkwardly seduce Elena, he first forces the growling cat to be petted in his lap. “I don’t think it wants that right now,” remarks Elena. Ignoring the obvious social cues both from the cat and the young lady, he plows ahead anyway. Elena is aligned with the cat, a being placed in a scenario to be used for consumption, unable or unwilling to divulge her motives or all of her desires. Her profession, which should provide her with independence, instead deposits her in a place to live without privacy, her agency dispelled, much like the declawed housecat. While it is unnecessarily divided up into three title carded segments, Exit Elena is a provoking and well made independent feature that manages to overcome budgetary issues and succeed as an arresting tale about dysfunctional family dynamics.