Even as you read this, it's my guess that at least a thousand aspiring filmmakers are hunched over their PCs and Macs in coffee shops and basement offices, working on the screenplay they hope will get them that breakthrough showcase at Sundance 2009. It'll be a low-budget, indie-feel kind of film -- but maybe a hot, Maxim-pinup-TV-starlet and a veteran character actor or two will attach themselves to the project, to showcase their real acting chops.
The story is set in American suburbia and will center on a seemingly idyllic neighborhood, and in particular one family who appear to have it all. Dad is successful and handsome, mom is attractive and intelligent, the daughter is a cheerleader, etc., etc. But there are dark secrets lurking behind closed doors in that neighborhood -- secrets involving tragedy and incest and drug addiction and murder and all manner of lies.
Nobody is happy. Everybody is miserable. Life is hell. And a young girl will narrate it all!
Memo to those thousand aspiring filmmakers working on scripts with such a theme: Please stop now and consider writing something else.
"The Quiet" wants to be a serious, literary slice of warped life. It wants to shock us with its revelations about a deeply dysfunctional extended family. It wants to remind us of "American Beauty." But it's a complete fraud that never feels the least bit authentic in its efforts to titillate and shock, and veers dangerously close to self-parody before collapsing under the weight of its ugliness and a preposterous, blood-soaked conclusion.
Camilla Belle, the breathtakingly exquisite alum of "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" and "When a Stranger Calls," tackles the role of Dot, a teenager who has been deaf and mute since her mother died when Dot was 7. Now Dot's dad is dead (and when I write that I hear Robert Blake as Baretta saying "Dat's da name of dat tune!"), so she has to move in with her godparents and attend a new school where she is immediately ostracized by students and patronized by teachers who speak to her as if she is mentally challenged instead of hearing-impaired. Even though Dot is an orphan who may or may not be faking that whole deaf-mute thing, she's probably the most well adjusted character in the movie, and that should tell you what kind of a feel-good romp you're in for with "The Quiet."
Dot's new "parents" are Paul, played by Martin Donovan, and Olivia, played by Edie Falco, who has an extended sequence in which she wears only her panties, and it's a moment where you're likely to forget about the scene she's playing and think, "Tony Soprano's wife is a lot skinnier than I thought she'd be." Their daughter Nina (Elisha Cuthbert) is an unbelievably hostile to her parents and to her new "sister." Even when she's flouncing about in her skimpy cheerleader outfit, she's snarling and snapping at everyone who crosses her path.
Why is Nina so profoundly angry? Could it be a problem with her father, who leans in close to her in the family kitchen and says, "You look nice today," and rings Nina at school to ask, "Are you wearing your cheerleader outfit?" Maybe it's her perpetually in denial mother, who's obsessed with redecorating the house and who's more heavily medicated than a racehorse with a broken leg. Or perhaps it's her best friend Michelle (Katy Mixon, wildly overacting), a fellow cheerleader who spends nearly every waking moment talking about how much she wants to have sex with the supposedly hunky Connor (Shawn Ashmore), a diminutive basketball star/sex addict who has a learning disability and also has a creepy crush on Dot. (He seems to lust after her mainly because he can spill his guts out about all his problems and perversions, and she can't hear a word he's saying. Or can she?)
As Dot learns that everyone in her new family is a living a lie, Nina begins to suspect that Dot is carrying out her own extended masquerade. This is the basis for an unlikely bond with vaguely erotic undertones. Cuthbert paints lipstick on Bell and gives her a night-of-the-big-dance makeover, even as she's discussing her plans to commit murder and end the pain she's endured for too many years. It's a "Heathers" moment in a film that's supposed to be taken seriously, I think.
If director Jamie Babbit had gone for social satire or pitch-black comedy, if "The Quiet" had been a parody of all those bleak movies about suburban families whose lives are Greek tragedies, that might have been interesting. But with Dot providing supposedly profound narratives, with the overbearing soundtrack, with the earnest acting efforts by a talented cast overmatched by the melodramatic script, there's no doubt that "The Quiet" is supposed to be taken seriously.
So be it. It's seriously bad.