Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Pennywise, Freddy Krueger, and Art the Clown could all get together and still not be as collectively frightening as the women of Soft & Quiet.
To be clear, Soft & Quiet is not a typical horror movie. There is little on-camera blood; the worst of the violence happens below the frame. But writer/director Beth de Araújo's feature debut manages to combine things we know to be true of some people, with a specific series of events, to create what Indiewire has called "the most terrifying film of the year."
Soft & Quiet introduces us to kindergarten teacher Emily (Stefanie Estes), who has organized a small meeting of a women's group, consisting of a few friends, and friends of friends, in the upstairs room of a church. Pastries are served, and everyone is welcome. They're here to socialize, vent about their lives, and brainstorm about what they can do to promote their mutual cause. Their cause, as we find out, happens to be white nationalism. After the meeting, the group heads to the store and encounters two people who aren't like them.
De Araújo shot Soft & Quiet in under a week in Northern California with working but non-name actors. In a phone interview, de Araújo explains, "We told the cast that this is on the cusp of suburban rural Oregon, outside of Eugene or Portland. We wanted that landscape, and also, a lot of these groups really do organize in those areas."
The inspiration for Soft & Quiet, de Araújo says, "came from my greatest fears and my nightmares, especially as Asian-American hate crimes increased over 2020. My mom is Chinese-American, my dad is from Brazil, and I was born in San Francisco. The real spark of it was the Amy Cooper video [aka the real-life viral "Karen" video, from May 25, 2020]. She's holding her dog by the leash, kind of strangling it and calling the cops and lying, saying a black man is threatening her. He's just sitting on a bench, bird-watching and asking her not to get any closer to him. She reminded me of someone that I have encountered in my life. A surge of emotion took over, and I just started frantically writing."
Soft & Quiet was not supposed to be de Araújo's first feature. However, her timing was perfect. "I went to the Sundance Directors Lab with something else I had been trying to finance for four years. I wrote this, and we went out for financing the week of the Capitol insurrection, and we got financed the next day. It's much lower-budget, so just one private equity financier."
Certain dynamics seem to occur when women come together with a common purpose, no matter what that purpose is. De Araújo says she based the initial get-together vibe on her own experiences as a member of various soccer teams. "I've played in the Olympic Development Club growing up, I've played some of the select leagues, and you just get thrown into a group of women that you wouldn't necessarily choose to be friends with. But because you're all on this team together, you all are at the mercy of what that dynamic is going to be. I've just had a lot of exposure to different groups of women that are all strangers, and then all of a sudden, have to work together in very, very close proximity for a common goal. I always found entering a new team and seeing how the dynamics shook out to be fascinating. And so, some of the group dynamics I pulled from that kind of experience. But in this specific group, I wanted it to just represent six different ways women get involved in this movement, six different perspectives, and six different motivations."
One of the younger women at the gathering, Leslie (Olivia Lucciardi), acknowledges that she has been in prison. De Araújo says we're not supposed to know why. "I let that be up to the imagination. Me and the actress Olivia Lucciardi, who is completely brilliant, had long conversations on what it actually was."
Something we do learn over the course of the film is that Leslie describes her personality one way at the start and emerges as something very different as Soft & Quiet proceeds. "I think she's a master manipulator. She's very aware of what she's doing. She's also a sociopath. And that's what happens when you are so desperate to recruit and grow a movement – you're eventually going to let sociopaths in."
De Araújo has never been to a meeting of the type she depicts in the film, although some white nationalist groups, like the Proud Boys, have Latinx members. Likewise, there are prominent women in the movement speaking publicly against women working outside the home. "I'm still so confused why these white women want to uphold a system that subjugates them. And I think it's the same for people of color in those spaces as well. I can't wrap my head around it."
The paradox of women in leadership roles who advocate that women should defer to men is illustrated in Emily's relationship with her husband, Craig (Jon Beavers). "The reason it's called Soft & Quiet is sort of spelled out by Emily in the church scene. We put this really intense, really ugly, really loud, really violent message in a really soft and pretty box, essentially, so it's easier for people to digest it. The only soft person in this is actually the man."
This, de Araújo adds, privately angers Emily. "She is quite an effective leader, but I think it probably is a little frustrating to her that she's not even supposed to really be a leader in this situation. The roles are supposed to be that [Craig] is, and so she's getting frustrated that he's not fulfilling his side. That she's the soft, pretty one, and he's supposed to be the harsh, masculine one, and she can't take it."
There are several acts of extreme brutality in Soft & Quiet. The most appalling of these is just off-screen, with the camera trained instead on those bearing witness to what's happening. "I thought it would be more effective having [the audience] imagine it than see it in this particular instance," de Araújo relates. "The other reason was because I wanted the focus to be on everyone who wasn't doing anything about it. So, we're watching the people who are watching it, knowing that it should not happen."
The women also don't seem to think that clearly when crises arise. "Not that any of these women ever can think clearly, but they're all on high alert – there's that extra panic mode. They each have their own idea of what the best [action] is, and they're all just going as quickly as they can, without taking a second to actually strategize."
What does de Araújo hope that viewers get out of Soft & Quiet? "I've always really regretted the times when I saw something that I thought was unjust, and I didn't do anything about it. So, I really hope this film gets under the skin of everyone else like me, and it sticks with us so that next time we see something wrong, we remember this feeling and do something about it."
Soft & Quiet is now available on Digital and On Demand.
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Required reading for the horror community.