Review: ‘Soft & Quiet,’ starring Stefanie Estes, Dana Millican, Olivia Luccardi, Eleanore Pienta, Melissa Paulo, Cissy Ly and Jon Beavers

March 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Olivia Luccardi, Dana Millican, Stefanie Estes, Rebekah Wiggins, Eleanore Pienta and Nina E. Jordan in “Soft & Quiet” (Photo by Greta Zozula)

“Soft & Quiet”

Directed by Beth de Araújo

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “Soft & Quiet” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with two Asians and one Latina) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: White supremacist women gather to form a racist hate group, and some of them plot to get revenge on two Asian women in a crime that spirals out of control.

Culture Audience: “Soft & Quiet” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that have accurate depictions of racist hate crimes and the people who commit them.

Stefanie Estes in “Soft & Quiet” (Photo by Greta Zozula)

Even though this movie’s title is “Soft & Quiet,” the movie’s message is meant to sound a very loud and urgent alarm. It’s a brutally realistic and disturbing depiction of female white supremacists who try to look harmless, but whose toxic bigotry can erupt into vicious hate crimes. Most movies (fiction and non-fiction) about white supremacists often focus on male racists, because male racists tend to be more visible to the public, such as when men are the majority of attendees at hate rallies. “Soft & Quiet” writer/director Beth de Araújo exposes the equally dangerous and often more covert insidiousness of women who identify as white supremacists and who will do whatever it takes to oppress and violate people who aren’t white.

Although the characters in this movie are fictional, they represent exactly how many hate-filled racists actually think and act in the real world. “Soft & Quiet” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival. It would be foolish to dismiss “Soft & Quiet” as being overly dramatic or an “only in a movie” story. Anyone can look up real-life hate crimes to see that what happens in this movie has happened in one form or another in real life—and the crimes are often much worse than what’s in a movie. And those are just the crimes that were reported. There are unknown numbers of unreported crimes that will never be made public.

People who watch “Soft & Quiet” without knowing anything about the movie beforehand might think from the film’s first 15 minutes that it’s just a lightweight story about some suburban women getting together to form a support group in a church. That’s the intention of the movie: to make people aware that racists who have these hateful beliefs often give the appearance of being inoffensive, law-abiding citizens. It’s that false sense of “unthreatening normalcy” that acts as a façade for many racists who are hiding in plain sight and who intend to violate other people’s civil rights, based on their race.

“Soft & Quiet,” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, begins with a scene in an unnamed primary school restroom, where a schoolteacher in her 30s named Emily (played by Stefanie Estes) is in a toilet stall and looking at the result of a pregnancy test. Emily bursts into tears when she sees the result of the test. Later in the movie, it’s revealed that Emily and her husband have been unsuccessfully trying to start a family. This latest pregnancy test shows that she’s not pregnant.

Emily gathers her composure as she walks out of the restroom. School sessions have ended for the day, and Emily sees a cleaning employee named Maria (played by Jovita Molina), who’s doing her job on the premises. Emily apparently is a teacher of first graders or second graders, because one of her students is a boy named Daniel (played by Jayden Leavitt), who’s about 7 or 8 years old.

Daniel is waiting outside by himself because his mother is late in picking him up. Emily expresses some concern about this child being alone, but she’s more concerned about telling Daniel to scold Maria to not mop any floors until after Daniel leaves. Emily says it’s because Daniel could slip and hurt himself on a wet floor. When Daniel’s mother arrives, Emily makes sure to tell her that she was looking out for Daniel and that this school employee could’ve put Daniel’s life in danger. Daniel’s mother expresses gratitude to Emily for being so conscientious.

Emily is not saying these things out of the kindness of her heart. The movie shows in subtle ways, which become more obvious when Emily’s true racist nature is revealed, that Emily wanted Daniel to put this Latina employee “in her place,” because Emily firmly believes in white supremacy. Throughout the movie, there are several references to the white supremacist women being preoccupied with feeling that their race is “endangered” in America.

After she leaves the school, Emily goes to a local church, where she has gathered a group of five other women (ranging in ages from late 20s to late 30s) for a meeting. At first, the women exchange small talk. But then, Emily unwraps the cherry pie that she brought to the meeting. The pie has a Nazi swastika carved in the center. All of the women laugh with glee and amusement when they see this hateful and disgusting symbol.

That’s because the women who have gathered for this meeting want to form a group called Daughters of Aryan Unity. A few of the women already know each other, while others do not. The women sit in a circle and introduce themselves, beginning with Emily, and they all express much of their racial hostility and resentments. Many of their vile comments are what you would expect from bigots who think that people who are white, Christian, heterosexual and cisgender are superior to everyone else.

Here are brief descriptions of the other members of the group:

Kim (played by Dana Millican), a married mother of two children, is the owner/manager of a local convenience store. Kim has a journalism degree and a brittle, no-nonsense attitude. She offers to be in charge of the group’s planned newsletter. Kim immediately shows her anti-Semitism when she complains about Jews owning banks and controlling the mainstream media. Emily and Kim have known each other for years.

Leslie (played by Olivia Luccardi) has recently moved to the area. She’s a bachelorette who later reveals that she’s an ex-con and comes from a “shitty family.” Leslie was invited to this meeting by Kim, because Leslie works at the same convenience store. Leslie thinks of Kim as her mentor. It should come as no surprise, considering Leslie’s criminal background, that Leslie ends up being the biggest loose cannon in the group.

Marjorie (played by Eleanore Pienta) is a retail store employee, who’s angry that a female co-worker of Colombian heritage got a job promotion that Marjorie wanted. Even though Marjorie admits that her supervisor told Marjorie that the promoted employee has “better leadership skills” than Marjorie does, Marjorie still thinks that Marjorie was entitled to the promotion because she’s been a store employee longer and because she is a white American. Marjorie, who dismisses any of the promoted co-worker’s job qualifications, says that the co-worker only got promoted because of “diversity and because she’s brown.”

Nora (played by Nina E. Jordan), a lifelong member of the Ku Klux Klan, says that her father was a KKK chapter president in Valentine, Nebraska. Nora, who is married and pregnant with her fifth child, believes that people of different races are better-off being separated from each other. She has this to say about race mixing: “I’m here to talk common sense. Multiculturism doesn’t work.”

Alice (played by Rebekah Wiggins), an awkward loner, says that she’s a married homemaker who spends “a lot of time by myself and in my thoughts.” Even if this group has beliefs that unite them, the “mean girls” element is still there. After the meeting, a few of the women single out Alice behind her back because they think Alice is a misfit who might not be compatible with the other women.

Emily leads the discussions and makes these remarks: “We are here to support each other during this multicultural warfare. I have been brainwashed to feel shame for my heritage, to feel guilty for the prosperity our husbands, our fathers, our brothers created in the Western world and that everyone else benefited from.” In her racist speech, Emily ignores historical facts about the United States, where white supremacy caused genocide of indigenous people, enslavement of black people, and other racist human-rights violations that resulted in white people benefiting and prospering the most from this racism.

When talking about the proposed newsletter, Emily makes a comment that best sums up why these types of female white supremacists are so sneaky: “We have to be careful with the first issue [of the newsletter]. We want to engage the mainstream. We can’t come on too strong, okay? Soft on the outside, so vigorous ideas can be digested more easily. We are the best secret weapon that no one checks at the door because we tread quietly.”

Not everyone is welcoming of this group’s racist beliefs. Something happens that abruptly breaks up the meeting: The church pastor, who is in the building, apparently overheard this discussion, and that’s how he found out that Emily was hosting a white supremacist meeting. The pastor takes Emily aside privately, expresses his disapproval, and tells her that if she and her group leave immediately and never come back, he won’t report them. Emily ends the meeting, but she doesn’t tell the other members of the group that they have been kicked out by the church pastor.

Not long after this church expulsion, something happens that changes the course of the story. Emily, her husband Craig (played by Jon Beavers) and Marjorie happen to be in the convenience store where Kim and Leslie are working. The store is about to close when two sisters in their 20s go in the store. Kim announces that the store is closed, but the older and more assertive sister, whose name is Anne (played Melissa Paulo), says she just needs to quickly buy a bottle of wine. The younger sister’s name is Lily (played by Cissy Ly), who is quieter than Anne and is more likely to want to avoid confrontations.

Anne and Lily both happen to be Asian. And when they go in the store, they are the only people of color who are there. What happens next triggers a series of events that turn “Soft & Quiet” from a conversation-driven movie into a gripping portrayal of heinous and irreversible actions. It’s enough to say, without revealing too many details, that the white supremacists instigate a physical altercation at the store, and then they impulsively hatch a vengeful plot that targets Anne and Lily.

It’s important for viewers to notice that when the members of this white supremacist group commit the crimes that they commit, they are always thinking about how they can use their privileges as white women to get away with the crimes. There are subtle and not-so-subtle references to how they think because they are white women, they are more likely to be believed than people who aren’t white. They also engage in a lot of ego posturing about how they are the “good people,” while their victims and targets of their hate are the “bad people.” And during one particularly harrowing scene, Kim mentions that she knows plenty of cops who can protect her and other members of this racist group if they do something wrong.

All of the cast members in the movie give authentic portrayals of their characters, which is why “Soft & Quiet” will touch a lot of nerves in viewers who might see people they know in these characters. Emily has a respectable job as a teacher of very young and impressionable kids, but it masks her dark side that she only shows to certain people. Estes gives a chilling but effective performance as someone who presents herself as one way to most of the world but is actually another way in reality.

Luccardi’s unhinged portrayal of Leslie represents the type of white supremacist who doesn’t really care about hiding hate. Leslie is the only one in this movie who mentions anything about her background. She’s the only one in this group who has a criminal record. But the point of “Soft & Quiet” isn’t to blame family upbringings or over-explain backstories for why these women turned out the way that they did. The point of the movie is to show viewers that this is how a lot of racists are behind closed doors.

“Soft & Quiet” is an impressive feature-film debut from writer/director de Araújo, who shows great skill in how the movie unpeels the layers of racist hate. The movie also succeeds in how it credibly transitions from camaraderie-filled discussions to a maelstrom of terror and violence. The film’s compelling cinematography (by Greta Zozula), music (by Miles Ross) and editing (by Lindsay Armstrong) will engulf viewers in this tension-filled environment.

“Soft & Quiet” is not an easy film to watch. It’s meant to make people uncomfortable. It might make people angry or sad. The violence and hatred unleashed by the movie’s racist characters might be triggering for some viewers who’ve experienced these types of crimes. Some viewers might be so turned-off or upset, they might not be able to finish watching the movie. Regardless of what people think of “Soft & Quiet,” the movie serves its purpose if it makes people more aware and less in denial about the racists who live among us and how poisonous these bigots can be.

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