By Don Simpson | April 15, 2014
Director: Nathan Silver
Writers: Kia Davis, Nathan Silver, Cody Stokes
Starring: Sheila Etxeberría, Theodore Bouloukos, Mark Gotbaum, Moshe Kessler, Nechama Kessler, Nick Korbee, Carl Kranz, Julie Marcus, J.W. McCormack, Ed Ryan, Melanie J. Scheiner, Jayson Simba, Bruce Smolanoff, Robert Williams-Taylor
Just as The Idiot‘s Myshkin struggles to find his footing in St. Petersburg after being released from a Swiss sanatorium, Soft in the Head‘s Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría) life becomes increasingly aimless in Brooklyn after getting kicked out of her abusive boyfriend’s apartment. Shamelessly inebriated, the 25-year-old dons a strikingly ridiculous blonde wig as she stumbles to have dinner with her best friend Hanna’s (Melanie J. Scheiner) family. Far too drunk to eat civilly enough for Hanna’s Jewish relatives, Natalia finds herself out on the streets with no place to sleep.
Enter Maury (Ed Ryan), a kind and gentle soul who offers his apartment as a free crash pad to anyone in need. Natalia barely hesitates to accept Maury’s gesture, presumably acknowledging that it is her best option for the night. The only female in Maury’s apartment, Natalia relishes in the gushing attention that Maury’s male tenants show her; even after a fairly creepy, if not frightening, scenario, Natalia remains naively unmoved. One can only assume that after the abuse her boyfriend has dished out, Natalia has grown immune to male aggression; if anything, she probably perceives violence as a sign of love and affection.
Hannah is so shocked by a visit to Maury’s apartment that she drags Natalia back to her home, dangling a proverbial carrot of alcohol as an incentive. Natalia is shocked when Hannah entrusts her with a key, and it is not long before Hannah realizes the error of her ways; but Natalia has already found ways to do a lot of harm in her short time there, encouraging Hannah’s socially awkward brother — Nathan (Carl Kranz) — to believe that she likes him.
Divided — literarily — into chapters, Nathan Silver’s Soft in the Head maintains the structural integrity of a novel, but avoids intellectualism and authorly devices. Channeling the precepts of Direct Cinema, Silver’s role is purely observational. He delves deep into the mire and dreck of humankind and drags the audience down with him. A dark and menacing offspring of early John Cassavetes, Silver’s relentlessly gritty, micro-budget approach to achieving an astonishingly high level of realism is quite commendable, yet the unbridled ugliness of Soft in the Head is sure to discourage a lot of viewers from persevering with this story. Alcohol-fueled carelessness and callousness does not make an empathetic protagonist, instead Natalia is destined to be judged fairly harshly by the audience. Silver’s audaciously personal approach to filmmaking provides us with unique insights into Natalia’s world; we are given the extremely rare opportunity to understand her character well enough to anticipate what she might do next, though we may never truly understand why.