Exit Elena is a quiet and affecting micro-budgeted drama, its condensed frame evoking the claustrophobic feeling of the household it examines. Shot with consumer-grade handheld digital cameras, the film follows Elena (Kia Davis), a newly certified nursing assistant, as she becomes a live-in aid to the Ackerman family at their suburban Boston home. Though her job is to ostensibly care for the elderly Florence (Gert O’Connell), she’s quickly consumed by the nagging demands of Florence’s middle-aged son, Jim (Jim Chiros), and his wife, Cindy (Cindy Silver), who run the house in a state of constant bickering. The already awkward situation only grows worse when Cindy and Jim’s son, Nate (played by director Nathan Silver), moves back home.
Kia Davis, with her wide blue eyes and curly brown mop of hair, dominates the film, which has a tendency to hold on her face in close-up. The film’s portrait-like 4:3 ratio outlines Elena’s soft features and allows her emotions, more often implied than verbalized, to flood the screen. When, for instance, she attempts to engineer a chance encounter with a local barista, she winds up watching from afar as he happily meets up with his girlfriend; as the camera observes Elena’s face in a static close-up, her sadness at being spurned and embarrassment over the situation is unmistakable, even with shadows partially obscuring her delicate features. All she can muster are a few blinks and a drag of her cigarette, which is all that’s needed to convey the emotions of a scene that’s as muted and reserved in style as Elena’s emotions are not.
The cast’s rapport is intimate, and with good reason. Silver and his mother seem to be playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, and as such the striking emotional honesty of their characters’ interactions can be attributed to their real-life mother-son dynamic. During a family dinner, Elena, trapped at the table, silently watches as Nathan and Cindy wearily engage in an argument that’s no doubt happened many times before. She’s an uncomfortable audience to this family’s disintegration, and one has to wonder how much of Davis’s truthful performance is rooted in her past relationship to Silver (the two were dating during the film’s making).
That said, the film is hardly bleak: Silver weaves in moments of levity among the melodrama, which strengthens Exit Elena’s emotional punch. During an ill-advised trip to a Zumba class, which Elena is dragged along to after much insistence, Cindy’s enthusiastically spastic dance moves are juxtaposed with Elena’s halfhearted attempts to participate herself, making for a hysterical sight gag. But the humor quickly dissipates after Elena storms outside: Cindy gently berates her about the fact that she won’t enjoy herself unless she actually tries, a sentiment as applicable to her real life as much as her uninspired Zumba performance.
The film concludes with Elena heading off into the night with only a suitcase and cat in hand. She begins the film as a lonely girl sucked into a family’s volatile emotional vortex, so aimless that any home might suffice as a work environment. But as she marches into the darkness at the film’s conclusion, she appears liberated from the Ackermans’ ennui—and maybe from her own as well.