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Soft In the Head | Review

Head Case: Silver Returns With Another Slice of Low-fi Discomfort

Soft in the Head Nathan Silver PosterAt the end of the final credits of Soft in the Head, Nathan Silver dedicates his latest film “For the Idiot,” a nod to his inspiration for as partially being born out of a desire to adapt Dostoevsky’s famous classic, The Idiot, concerning a character released from a sanitarium, whose subsequent interactions with the outside world suggests that the cruelty and duplicity of others is more vicious than the sanitarium. In his 2012 darkly comedic Exit Elena, Silver examines an awkward and uncomfortable relationship allowed to develop because of accepted notions of polite social exchange in a situation predicated by monetary necessity for its main character. His latest also glorifies in the discomfort of mixing company of those living in the comfortable scripts of their lives with the instability of those in a slipping down desperation to find themselves without proper support or resources. It’s a film that’s sad, funny, and features a slew of characters difficult to like as they’re viciously realistic in that they seem wholly incapable of making decisions to benefit themselves.

We meet Natalia (Sheila Etxeberria) in extreme close-up, a ridiculous blonde bobbed wig on her head, seemingly desperate to convince her boyfriend that she’s been invited to some sort of get together by a friend. She’d admonished by her boyfriend for looking stupid, and in moments, a violent altercation ensues. Determined to attend the event she’s been invited to, Natalia leaves her Brooklyn apartment and wanders down the streets in an apparent inebriation. A passersby likens her to Lady Gaga. She arrives at best friend Hanna’s (Melanie J. Scheiner), whose Jewish parents seems straight out of Woody Allen territory (and there are some classic Allen posters in one of the character’s rooms, a lovely French Sleeper poster and The Front). Hannah’s mildly autistic brother Nathan (Carl Kranz) is instantly smitten with Natalia, who disrupts what appears to be a respectable observation with her drunken behavior, food falling out of her mouth as she declares she just broke up with her boyfriend. Taking to the streets, a stroke of luck finds Natalia being offered a place to stay by Maury (Ed Ryan), a kind hearted who offers his home as a place of refuge for those in need, free of charge. Natalia accepts his proposal and finds herself in the midst of a group of older, disenfranchised men that are mostly harmless. Seemingly thrilled at her luck, Natalia invites Hannah for dinner at her new “home,” but her friend is horrified at what she sees, taking Natalia back to her place to stay until she gets her life together. But Hannah soon finds that loose cannon Natalia is an unhealthy presence, and Nathan’s rather touching infatuation soon begins to cause problems for their family.

It’s difficult to care for a character like Natalia, who voices our own wonder aloud when Hannah gives her keys to her own apartment: “You’re going to trust me?” We know so little about her other than the fact that she can’t seem to do the right thing….ever. No sooner does she have the keys to Hannah’s, she’s guzzling wine and ramming powdered donuts down her face, carelessly accepting Nathan’s overtly romantic attentions. Silver divides his film into various chapters, which lends Natalia’s story a kind of literary air, akin to a modern day version of Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. While we don’t know anything about her, or those other troubled characters holed up in Maury’s house, it hardly matters, does it? It takes time and money to get back on one’s feet, and Natalia finds it easier to stay inebriated. “I’ll destroy you,” she matter-of-factly tells someone, voicing a sad but true realization. She’s not a harpy, but she’s a black hole, spinning out of control, sucking up any in her wake. And as ingratiating as Natalia is, the character of Maury is just as intensely interesting, a remarkably sad presence, one whose story could be a film on its own.

Shot in fifteen days, Silver’s micro-budget cinema has intense ingenuity, and it’s no surprise to learn that the actors weren’t operating from a script, working instead from outlines that make their characters seem all the more uncomfortably realistic. Even more refreshing is how Silver and DP Cody Stokes (who also worked on Exit Elena) manage to make handheld camerawork and sometimes unflattering close-ups seem realistic rather than jarring or distracting. While Soft in the Head is less easy to love than Exit Elena (for those familiar with that film, the inclusion of Cindy Silver in a bit part here is entirely welcome) as it more so invokes a hopeless empathy, it’s another noteworthy film from Nathan Silver, whose cinema of discomfort is a welcome aside in the realm of independent cinema.

– Vienna International Film Festival Review

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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