Uncertain Terms is a poignant shaggy-dog joke in which one comes to gradually understand the title to have at least two meanings, both referring to people in transitory extremis. Robbie (David Dahlbom) is a scruffy 30-year-old who heads out somewhere in the country to help his aunt, Carla (Cindy Silver), with her house, which she runs as a refuge for pregnant girls with tense or nonexistent family situations. Robbie’s sort of handsome in a disheveled way, and compared to these girls, most of whom are minors, he’s probably even worldly. His presence is certainly clearly colored by the sort of pain that scans as poise to young people who don’t know any better. Robbie minds his own business at first, digging trenches for Carla’s outdoor plumbing, moving scrap wood and cleaning up the property, but he eventually finds the girls’ worshipful gazes to be a little too inviting, particularly as it becomes apparent that he’s in the midst of a domestic collapse that parallels their own form of estrangement.
Broadly, that’s the entire plot of the film, which director Nathan Silver utilizes as a structure for organizing his nearly self-contained sequences, confidently informing melodrama with an expressively heightened sense of American domestic quotidian. Silver’s cinema fuses a study of human gestures within a specific cultural ecosystem with a suggestion of farce; his films are usually on the verge of becoming full-throttle comedies of manners, often abruptly, movingly concluding just as that transition appears to be taking place. The pointed refusal of the films to “develop” in this manner, fulfilling narrative obligations that would align them explicitly with the comedy genre, parallels the characters’ dwarfed expectations. In the case of Uncertain Terms, Robbie almost attempts a bold, ludicrous, life-changing gesture, only to restore his world to its status quo with somewhat relieved deflation.
Appropriately, the images in the film, the most fluidly beautiful and resonant of Silver’s career thus far, suggest flashes of memory relived from the vantage point of the future. One suspects that Robbie will mentally revisit these encounters later on, probably with a mixture of nostalgia and astonishment and exasperation at his vulnerability. Robbie develops a significant flirtation with one of the girls, Nina (a remarkable India Menuez), teaching her how to drive in a long scene that climaxes with a rapturous close-up of her face as she turns the car in circles, its movement only discernable by the rattling of the window of the driver’s-side door. Dramatizing a similarly (and briefly) transformative birthday party, Silver surveys the girls as they dance, reaching a mini-catharsis in their attempts to sway gracefully within their newish pregnant bodies, which have grown acquainted with womanhood at a faster clip than their emotions, torn as they are between appropriating the roles of girl and mother. Robbie, who watches them from the sidelines with an awkward mixture of empathy, self-pity, and lust, feels correspondingly stretched in opposing directions by the conflicting desires to behave as a boy and as a husband and potentially aspiring father. Uncertain Terms is a symphony of small behavioral ripples—its astuteness impressing itself upon one cumulatively and powerfully, until it’s apparent that Silver has fashioned a bracing acknowledgement of growth’s destabilizing pain, which is reliably inescapable regardless of age or gender.