Nathan Silver captures the young-adult experience, particularly the agony of first sexual pangs, in films that deftly mix beguilement and repulsion. The magic of his first film, Exit Elena, hinged on Kia Davis’s eponymous character, a budding live-in nurse who moves in with a dysfunctional family to take care of an ailing matriarch. The acute oddness of close cohabitation with strangers, and Elena’s considerable poise, made the film compulsive to watch, not the least because Silver kept his characters’ emotional tantrums and peculiarities under the wraps, thriving on taut, neurotic scenarios, but without resorting to caricature.
The same aesthetic applies to Soft in the Head, except this time the filmmaker pushes it further. In the film, a young urbanite, Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría), is an explosive mix of bracing honesty and off-putting, at times crass brazenness. Kicked out by her jealous boyfriend, she ends up at a halfway home, run by a frail, prohibitively polite bachelor, Ed (Maury Kane). At the sight of Natalia, Ed’s male protégés’ ids flare, as in a scene where a volatile megalomaniac, David (Theodore Bouloukos), passionately caresses and sniffs her hair. Natalia is the single female among the sexually deprived men, except for one dinner when her stricken friend, Hannah (Melanie J. Scheiner), deigns to join in at the table. The complexity of this grotesque vignette—Hannah’s judgmental, middle-class gaze as she sits at the communal table, Natalia’s passionate yet somewhat prurient interest in the men—is one example of Silver’s psychological depth, where realism nearly implodes the more immediate exigencies of plot.
Soft in the Head eschews anything as predictable as featuring an unwarranted assault on a young, provocative girl. Instead, it keeps telegraphing the discomforts of courtship, and the achy, at times violent emotions that accompany desire. Hannah’s younger brother, Nathan (Carl Kranz), who’s said to be mildly autistic, though his condition may be rather extreme social awkwardness and hypersensitivity, becomes smitten with Natalia. He tries to please her, first by offering to fix her broken necklace, and then by stealing one from his mother to replace it. The often drunk, scantily clad Natalia goes along with their game of courtship, letting Nathan play Romeo, but only so far: In a decisive scene, as Nathan’s conservative Jewish family sits down to a prayer, Natalia emerges from Nathan’s bedroom where she’s been told to hide, disheveled, hung-over, and wild-eyed, hugging a bag of potato chips, and driving the parents to utter bewilderment.
It’s perhaps in this moment that Silver’s talent for characterization shines through the most: We don’t know whether to be appalled by Natalia’s crudeness, her obstinate trampling upon social décor, or whether to cheer her on, for the sake of rooting with the underdog. With her dark hair and smudged makeup, she’s an Amy Winehouse lookalike, to the point of inviting the idea that her acting out may be a desperate call for attention or, in a way, a performance. Lost yet larger than life, at least while she’s posing, she’s not nearly as sweetly approachable as Silver’s previous female misfit, Elena. Where Elena fiercely cultivated her privacy, Natalia is an exhibitionist. Yet she’s not pitiful enough for us to condescend to her either.
More importantly, Silver leaves open the question whether Natalia is unacceptable to Hannah and Nathan’s family because she’s recklessly wanton or because she isn’t Jewish. Originally welcoming at a holiday dinner, the parents quickly move to expel her without concern for her wellbeing. Likewise, Nathan’s unmanageable passions, from unconditional fawning to savage anger, carry enough cruelty to raise the question of who’s being the victim and who’s being the opportunist. As in Exit Elena, we’re not merely treated to a customary portrait of overbearing parents, but of a family as a selfish, tightly knit unit concerned exclusively with itself. Against it, Silver’s female antiheroines move like shadowy, peripheral figures, but they generate enough stubborn force to surprise us, and to perturb.