2006, R, 96 min. Directed by Jamie Babbit. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Camilla Belle, Edie Falco, Martin Donovan, Shawn Ashmore, Katy Mixon.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Sept. 1, 2006
The first Burnt Orange Productions joint is a strange mash-up of Cinemax and Lifetime – a combination which might sound more appealing on the page than it actually is onscreen. Babbit (But I'm a Cheerleader) knows her way around pulp, but her direction here isnn't deft enough to balance the film's lowbrow look and feel with its high-minded sentiments about child exploitation. The script (by Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft) kludges The Piano with Poison Ivy: enigmatic young woman (Belle), mute by choice after personal tragedy, "speaks" through a piano and moves to the home of her hot but creepy, and possibly evil, new guardian (Donovan), who has an ineffectual wife (Falco in the Cheryl Ladd role, only this time she's catatonic from drugs) and an inappropriate relationship with a blond teenage hussy (Cuthbert) – his daughter. There's nothing necessarily wrong with the story, even though it's trashy and often overplayed, as when Cuthbert's character freaks out and irons the face off her teddy bear because she was prematurely sexualized by her parents. The trouble is with its execution. The filmmakers take the easy way out in characterizing their mute protagonist: with reams of voiceover that explicate everything. When Belle's feeling sad, she tells us, in her head: "One day we wake up and realize the world sucks." A braver film would experiment with actual silence. Meanwhile, the high school dialogue intends to be barbed and darkly witty, but it's terribly timed – despite Babbit's television pedigree – and sounds stilted and clunky instead. And all this assumes a viewer can accept Cuthbert as a thumb-sucking Lolita. According to the IMDb, Cuthbert is 24 years old, and in the film she's wearing dreadful extensions and a cheerleading uniform and looks old and overprocessed enough to have a starter marriage in Vegas. No doubt the movie has a lot of satirical intent, and some of it works. (I liked X-Men's Ashmore as a popular jock whose first reaction to a deaf-mute girl is to tell her all about his sexual anxieties; he falls in love with her because she can't understand or answer him, he thinks – she just looks pretty and appears to be listening.) But the movie just doesn't engage emotionally. It stubbornly refuses to be anything but an exploitation movie – all the while insisting that it's not an exploitation movie. Before it's done pleading the case of Cuthbert's innocence, it's putting her in bed with her best friend (Mixon) in lingerie, then jerking the camera away as if to shame us for watching. Perhaps future generations of film scholars will embrace The Quiet as a B-movie that problematizes the oppressive gaze, but for now, it's a misfire. (For an interview with the director, see Screens feature "The Chosen One".)