Family dysfunction is more loud than lurid in The Quiet

The Quiet is a rarity, the kind of movie where the true revelations are motivations rather than actions and where one of the most exciting things about the experience of watching it is the frequently blossoming realization that you truly don't know what the characters are about to do next.

When her father dies, Dot (Camilla Belle), a deaf and mute teenager, is taken into the home of her godparents -- Paul (Martin Donovan) and Olivia (Edie Falco) Deer -- and their daughter, Nina (Elisha Cuthbert). The movie starts a week after Dot has begun living with the family, and as Dot begins to discover secret dysfunction in the Deer family, she's forced to face the truths of her life, past and present, and what it might mean for those truths to be known.

The Quiet is directed by Jamie Babbit, a TV vet (Gilmore Girls, Wonderfalls) who knows her way around the dynamics of female relationships, and written by Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft, who, in this script at least, prove the same. The screenplay gets mileage out of the passive-aggressive dynamics of the Deer family and makes astute character observations such as the use of crisis-dominated news as a way to disconnect from one's own life troubles.

The film's handling of Dot's impairments is excellent. The filmmakers use editing to show the psychological results of Dot's isolation rather than using the typical trick of showing the physical manifestations of being deaf; there's blessedly no scene where the soundtrack is also deaf.

The Quiet is reminiscent of American Beauty: The Deers seem built on the Burnham family blueprint, though each family member has flaws that differ from their counterparts. Olivia Deer abuses prescription drugs and, having issues with what money can buy (like Carolyn Burnham), passes out nightly in a room that is being remodeled. (She's so numb she doesn't realize when she's wearing heels in bed.) Nina and Dot each take on various aspects of American Beauty's teen girls, and Paul is a less charming, less pathetic, and less forgivable Lester Burnham.

But the changes to the American Beauty formula are interesting. The Quiet's subject matter is more explicit: The metaphorical naughtiness of American Beauty is made literal, and the earlier film's smug universality is removed. American Beauty is gaudy from the word "go" and succeeds because of it, whereas The Quiet has a finale that is chilling and effective but made pedestrian by giving in to a similar luridness it had avoided for so long.

The Quiet ultimately isn't as good as American Beauty, lacking its wit, ambition, and aesthetics. The Quiet works, though, primarily because of Belle's performance. Dot is given a voice through narration, and when she says things such as, "One day we wake up, and we realize the world sucks, and we suck for being in it, and we run away," you can't help but hear and believe her.

The Quiet

Opening Friday, September 1st

Studio on the Square


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