Film Review: Soft in the HeadA concise and blistering indie that captures a sense of volatile madness via sharp handheld aesthetics and a commanding lead performance from Sheila Etxeberría.
A bracing character study that immerses itself in madness, Soft in the Head boasts a rigorous attention to character and emotion that might be more exhausting if not for the film’s concise 71-minute runtime. Nathan Silver’s indie is shot in almost nothing but jittery handheld close-ups that provide an up-close-and-personal view—as well as reflect the frantic mindset—of Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría), a twenty-something woman introduced at the outset being beaten and thrown out of an apartment by her boyfriend George (Nick Korbee).
That blistering opening, which finds Natalia pleading for George to stop because she loves him, has a raw immediacy that’s juxtaposed by the following, placid Shabbat dinner at the home of Natalia’s friend Hannah (Melanie J. Scheiner), where Natalia soon appears and, with one coy look, entrances Hannah’s autistic brother Nathan (Carl Kranz). Thrown out of that get-together for being drunk, Natalia turns to the streets, finding her way to a homeless shelter where, in a bit of providence, she meets Maury (Ed Ryan), a kind gentleman who—as he does with a few other men—invites Natalia to stay at his place, presumably (by the fact that his living room sports a prominent cross) out of a sense of benevolent Christian charity.
There, a group of not-quite-with-it guys profanely joke with, and leer at, Natalia, who can’t seem to stop herself from unwisely flirting, boozing, and making a general mess of herself. That’s true even once she leaves Maury’s home to briefly stay in Hannah’s apartment, and again sees—and stokes the admiration of—Nathan, a shy, quiet man who immediately misreads such attention as love and becomes altogether infatuated with Natalia, even going so far as to steal a necklace from his mother to give her as a gift. Working from an economical script co-written by Kia Davis and Cody Stokes (who also serve as production designer and cinematographer, respectively), Silver dramatizes this with a visual proximity that brings out the raw, unhinged emotions of his characters—Natalia’s flailing-every-which-way self-destructiveness, Nathan’s immature passion, Hannah’s disgust, and her parents’ concern and fury. There’s a breakneck quality to Soft in the Head, generated less from the narrative itself (which is methodically plotted, and often uneventful) than from the characters’ volatile and reckless states of mind.
Nathan and Hannah’s Judaism is a constant presence throughout the film, serving as a calming and stable counterpoint to the out-of-control people that fly in and out of the story, including David (Theodore Bouloukos), an overweight and possibly demented man who stays with Maury and whose fits of rage over his housemates’ habit of stealing his hat eventually leads the story into tragic territory. More than via any climactic incidents, however, Soft in the Head proves gripping courtesy of the nuanced Etxeberría, whose impulsive and unruly Natalia seems incapable of harnessing her looks or charm for productive ends. In close-up after close-up, she radiates a wildness so uncontrollable, it feels like something to be pitied rather than derided—and makes the calm she finally achieves, in the film’s closing shot, come across as a glimmer of fragile, transcendent hope for a better future.
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