For a stretch, Exit Elena is by all appearances an unassuming micro-scale drama about a young nurse named Elena (Kia Davis) who takes a job in the Boston suburbs as a live-in aide. While caring for the sweet, elderly Florence (Gert O’Connell), Elena spends even more time deflecting increasingly awkward interactions with Florence’s daughter-in-law Cindy (Cindy Silver). The discomfort between them is instant, palpable and only heightens as Cindy’s serial mothering becomes more and more invasive. An amusingly subdued motormouth (one particular scene will have you forever cringing at any future utterance of the words “air conditioner”), Cindy constantly tries to shake Elena out of her lethargic state usually by forcing fun upon her in the form of swimming or, most hilariously, a Zumba fitness class. Elena could not be less touched by Cindy’s inexplicable persistence to play surrogate mother, and to cement Elena’s place in not only the household, but the family.
Tensions only amplify when Cindy and her husband Jim (Jim Chiros)’s emotionally troubled son unexpectedly returns home. Nathan (director Nathan Silver) is as much an incessant chatterbox as his mother, although his strings of words tend to come out more like barbed wire. Suddenly, Elena finds herself caught in the eye of a familial storm and does her best to dodge dysfunction while thanklessly maintaining her daily duties.
Exit Elena is a deceptively simple portrait of three women all inmates of their own generational prisons. Within that household, their growth is stunted, compacted, as if they’re stuck reliving the same day on an endless loop. Florence will keep falling down and injuring herself, Cindy will keep kvetching, and Elena will keep sulking between robotically motioning through her responsibilities until the day one of them is gone and one must take the other’s place. Cindy even tells Elena, somewhat forebodingly, that she wants Elena to stick around even after her service is no longer required, but never specifies why. Underneath that roof, there is no looking ahead for Elena without seeing Cindy and Florence, two women emblematic of her future. The film’s title could very well be an ominous instruction, one that’s missing a well-placed comma.
It’s clear the second Nathan shows up on screen that he shares DNA with Cindy, who is in fact his real-life mother. An untrained actor, Ms. Silver so perfectly and realistically encapsulates the overbearing mother that it transcends able imitation. It’s a kind of unperformance; an effortless expression of oneself by a subject whose only hurdle is to ignore the camera aimed at her. Martin Scorsese recognized the same naturalistic quality in his mother when he cast her as Joe Pesci’s “Ma” in Goodfellas. Catherine Scorsese doesn’t have much to do in the film but answer the front door, invite her son and his buddies inside, offer them something to eat and chat around the dinner table. Yet she acts circles around the likes of Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Pesci in a knockout, almost entirely improvised scene, the dynamics of which Exit Elena frequently, and loudly, echoes.
With his sophomore feature, Nathan Silver has conceived of something miraculous. For a film so roundly improvised and experimental, Exit Elena boasts an impressively tight control throughout. Mr. Silver’s choice to put himself and his mother in front of the camera in a story about a calamitous family is a mischievous one, and allows for plenty of cathartic confrontations. The full frame, shot on digital video, only lends further to the home-movie quality of the whole piece. Both a refreshingly unpretentious account of a fractured family and a uniquely perceptive take on quarter-life plight, Exit Elena is one of the best films of the year.
Exit Elena is available to watch now at http://www.vyerfilms.com.