Across Nathan Silver’s three latest features—Exit Elena, Soft in the Head, and Uncertain Terms, exempting the just-premiered Stinking Heaven—one can immediately see a handful of formal and narrative similarities. Each opens with an ambiguous pre-title sequence and ends without resolution, and these disparate narratives are treated similarly: Exit Elena follows the eponymous live-in caretaker regularly being pushed into a familial rather than professional role; Soft in the Head observes a woman who breaks up with her cohabitant boyfriend and then moves into an apartment that functions as a makeshift homeless shelter for men; Uncertain Terms takes place in a shelter for pregnant teens and zeroes in on Nina (India Menuez), whose boyfriend is somewhat present.
The narratives appear to be different but share a depiction of women whose circumstances foreground their gender. Indeed, each film contains an ill-advised relationship—Elena and the family’s son; the alcoholic woman and the brother of her best friend, who hail from a faithful Jewish family; Nina and the surrogate mother’s handyman nephew, who moves in to get away from the wife that cheated on him. Moreover, all three relationships sprout from a previous, failed one, be it Elena’s unrealized run-in with a coffee-shop charmer, Natalia of Soft in the Head’s pre-title break-up, or the pair of failing significant others in Uncertain Terms. Silver is clearly interested in the social dynamics of communities and their different treatments of intruders, and conversely, how intruders can lead communities to turn on one another.
Although this particular critic finds Soft in the Head to lack narrative interest, to be imbalanced in its competing plots, and burdened by poor improvisation, it is probably the one film that, in its tonal differences from the other two, makes Silver a more interesting and irreducible director. Exit Elena and Uncertain Terms exude warmth even as characters’ actions lead to hostility, and their protagonists have sympathetic plights and handle them sensibly. By contrast, Soft in the Head is dominated by narcissistic and manipulative characters with whom a viewer would not dare align. Nonetheless, Silver muddles sound as if replicating Nathalia’s point-of-view, and camera movement is chaotic, with comparatively long close-ups never feeling like devices to elicit sympathy.
Both Exit Elena and Uncertain Terms make use of close-ups to align us with their protagonists, often zooming in on an uncomfortable face as overlapping awkward conversations take place just off-screen. Part of what makes Exit Elena successful is how closely the camera trains its eye on its subject, capturing Kia Davis’ uncomfortable flinches and gestures and her nervous patterns of speech (presumably a result of more successful improvisation), often in a camera’s pan and zoom rather than a cut, a neat trick that turns a purely functional shot that lets us see and hear what’s happening into a quiet reaction shot. When the obnoxious son Nathan (played by the director himself) appears, the mother becomes the focus of similar shots. Uncertain Terms goes for the same effect, but here the close camera captures how adaptable Nina is in relation to those around her. The Nina we see with her boyfriend Chase is different from the one we see with the older Robbie; she’s also different from how we see her with the other girls, particularly Gina (Tallie Medel). Even when Elena is not directly caretaking, we don’t see her in a situation where her nerves can fully relax, and Nathalia is too self-absorbed to ever change manner, but Nina, like the writer-director who created her, is acutely attuned to dynamics of social interaction. The camera tends to ignore the speaker and focus on the listener, who responds seemingly only so the same shot will be able to capture further reactions when the other person fires back.
If Silver’s narratives aren’t proof enough of this concern, his improvisatory manner certainly is. Silver has gone so far as to write, in a guest post for Filmmaker Magazine, “the plots of my movies don’t matter, I want what’s in the air … I don’t care what characters say; it’s their reactions that keep the movies on their serpentine tracks.” While I would argue that the plots of Silver’s films, if not the “stories” themselves, are vital in allowing us to understand the adaptability and lack thereof of the characters—and it is here that Soft in the Head fails, as it doesn’t challenge its protagonist enough and thus makes her narcissism far less challenging than, for example, Rick Alverson does with his protagonist in The Comedy or Alex Ross Perry does with his in The Color Wheel—Silver’s love of improvisation and self-professed attention to reactions only makes it clear that he wants to capture an unscripted (and therefore more honest) way that people act and react to one another. In the case of Uncertain Terms which is filled with talented young performers like Menuez (Something in the Air), Medel (The Unspeakable Act), Hannah Gross (I Used to be Darker, Christmas Again), and Gina Piersanti (It Felt Like Love), it works. Exit Elena is almost as successful, perhaps because its cast consists of those who were closest to Silver. Here again, Soft in the Head falls short: the group of non-professionals resorts to repeating lines so frequently that sincerity and observational epiphany is lost.
In any case, if the stories of Silver’s films don’t matter, perhaps this is why Uncertain Terms stands as his best film to date. Even the details and finely captured moments—many of them at the dinner table—in his previous two features are in fact quite plotty. Both films are rushed, always having somewhere to be and something to say, as if the 70-minute runtimes are forced on them. Silver would have done well to let a little bit of air in these two features—to linger at the coffee shop or the night after the fall in Exit Elena, on either or both of Soft in the Head’s opening two scenes, or Nathalia’s unwelcome and unexpected entrance into the dining room the day after a drunken one-night stand—and with Uncertain Terms, he finally does. A conversation about math and a stolen garment, for example, and a later driving scene, let the air in. Uncertain Terms is no longer, but far, far less happens in it, so everyday interactions regularly outlast their narrative function.