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.

Review: ‘Lorelei’ (2021), starring Pablo Schreiber and Jena Malone

August 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jena Malone and Pablo Schreiber in “Lorelei” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Lorelei” (2021)

Directed by Sabrina Doyle

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oregon and briefly in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “Lorelei” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After serving 15 years in prison for armed robbery, a recently released ex-convict reconnects with his high school sweetheart, who is now a single mother of three children, and they have challenges as he tries to get his life back on track. 

Culture Audience: “Lorelei” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in realistic dramas about ex-convicts and about working-class Americans who are living right on the edge of poverty.

Parker Pascoe-Sheppard, Jena Malone, Amelia Borgerding and Chancellor Perry in “Lorelei” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The reason for the title of the dramatic film “Lorelei” isn’t revealed until the last 10 minutes of the movie. Until then, viewers are taken on a roller coaster ride of a relationship between an ex-con and his former girlfriend, who reunite after he gets out of prison. It’s a well-acted portrait of forgiveness, trust and how emotional stakes can be high when people with troubled pasts are given a chance at redemption.

“Lorelei” is an impressive feature-film debut by writer/director Sabrina Doyle, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who is originally from England. She’s made a very authentic-looking movie about working-class life in the United States that presents an unvarnished but empathetic view of what it means to be one or two paychecks away from poverty. “Lorelei” takes place in an unnamed city in Oregon, but the struggles shown in the movie are reflective of what millions of people around the world can and do experience in similar circumstances.

The movie’s title suggests that the story’s main protagonist is a woman. However, “Lorelei” is actually told from the point of view of a man named Wayland Beckett (played by Pablo Schreiber), a member of a biker gang who has recently been released from prison, after serving 15 years for armed robbery. (Schreiber is best-known to TV audiences as a former co-star of the motorcycle gang drama series “Sons of Anarchy.”)

Wayland was in his late teens when he went to prison for this crime. Now in his early 40s, Wayland has to find a way to adjust to life outside prison when so much of the outside world has changed. When he walks out of prison, he’s greeted by several members of his biker buddies, who then throw a bonfire party for him to celebrate his release from prison.

Luckily for Wayland, he has a place to live after his prison release. He’s staying at a spare room at a church, where in exchange for free room and board, he has agreed to do regular chores and maintenance for the church. His living situation is much like a halfway house, because he has to abide by the rules set by his supervisor at the church: Pastor Gail (played by Trish Egan), who tells Wayland that she’s also available to him for counseling.

“You know I don’t believe in God, right?” Wayland asks Pastor Gail. She replies, “That’s okay. Just stay out of jail.” The rules are pretty simple: No drugs, no alcohol and no illegal activity on the premises. Unlike the rules at a typical halfway house, this church does not make Wayland have a curfew.

Pastor Gail is involved in a lot of charity work, such as food donations to underprivileged people. At the church, she also leads meetings for people dealing with various issues, but the meetings come with a certain amount of religious lecturing. Wayland comments to Pastor Gail in a teasing tone of voice, “The problem with do-gooders is that nobody likes them.” Pastor Gail replies, “I never gave a shit about being liked. I just believe that people deserve second chances—maybe three or four.”

One day, Pastor Gail asks for Wayland’s help to prepare a room for a meeting to be held that evening for single mothers. Wayland hangs around when the meeting starts. And he sees someone from his past whom he hasn’t seen since he was in prison. Her name is Dolores (played by Jena Malone), but she sometimes goes by the nickname Lola, which is what her three kids call her. And she was Wayland’s girlfriend when they were in high school together.

Wayland and Dolores began dating each other when they were both 15. Viewers will find out in bits and pieces what happened to Dolores and Wayland’s high school romance and why they broke up. Their full story is told in a few flashbacks, but mostly through conversations that Wayland and Dolores have about the past.

At the church meeting, Wayland and Dolores make eye contact, and she excuses herself from the meeting to talk to him outside. Based on their body language and how they look at each other, there’s still some romantic heat and unfinished business between the two of them. Dolores and Wayland haven’t seen each other since he went to prison. They stayed in touch for a little while after he was sent to prison, but they eventually ended their contact while he was incarcerated.

When they were a couple, Dolores (who was a star swimmer on her high school team) and Wayland had planned to move to Los Angeles together after high school. But Wayland got caught up in criminal activities with his biker gang called the Night Horsemen, which led to the armed robbery that landed him in prison. Dolores began dating other people, and she had to drop out of high school when she got pregnant with her first child.

Dolores, who now works as a motel maid, seems pleasantly surprised to see that Wayland is now out of prison. They immediately make plans for a date at a bar after the church meeting. Based on how quickly Dolores runs out of the church meeting when it’s over, she’s eagerly anticipating this date. When Wayland picks her up in his truck, he sheepishly tells her that he doesn’t have any cash. She doesn’t seem to mind too much and she offers to pay for whatever they order at the bar.

During their reunion conversation, Dolores gives a brief update on her life by telling him that she has three kids. Dolores assures Wayland that he’s definitely not the father of her first child, a boy named Dodger Blue (played by Chancellor Perry), who is now 15. She describes Dodger’s father as a “nobody” and a meaningless fling. “I couldn’t even tell you his name,” Dolores says. Later, when Wayland meets Dodger, he knows for sure that he’s not the father because Dodger is biracial, with a black biological father.

The date ends with Dolores inviting Wayland back to her modest house to spend the night. Unlike most movies which portray ex-cons who’ve been recently let out of prison as very horny and ready to have sex with the first available partner, “Lorelei” shows that Wayland is hesitant and insecure in this intimate moment. He whispers to Dolores, “I don’t even know how to do this anymore.”

Dolores is kind and patient with Wayland, who isn’t ready to be fully intimate with her. She asks him if he fooled around wth men in prison, and he says no. They spend the night together cuddling, but they eventually make up for this chaste date with their first night of passion together in years.

The next morning, Wayland is introduced to Dolores’ children. All three of her kids have different biological fathers, who are not involved in raising them. Dodger is a typical teen who is somewhat rebellious. His mother lets him vape in the house, but she doesn’t allow him to do drink alcohol or do drugs. He likes to weightlift and hasn’t decided what he wants to do with his life yet. Later in the story, he tells Wayland that he’s thinking about joining the military after he graduates from high school.

Dolores’ middle child is sassy 12-year-old daughter Periwinkle Blue (played by Amelia Borgerding), nicknamed Peri. Dolores later tells Wayland that Peri’s biological father was a “lowlife” meth addict. Peri is an obedient child overall but shows a great deal of resentment toward Dolores and has a tendency to talk rudely to her. Why the hostility? Peri thinks Dolores is a flaky mother who gives special treatment to her other two kids, especially Dodger.

Dolores’ youngest child is sweet-natured 6-year-old Denim (played by Parker Pascoe-Sheppard), whose assigned gender at birth was male, but there are signs that Denim is a transgender female. Denim only wants to wear Peri’s feminine-identifying clothes and doesn’t want to wear clothes that look like boys’ outfits. Dolores later tells Wayland that Denim’s father was one of Dodger’s schoolteachers, who was married and moved out of the area with his wife and kids soon after finding out that Dolores was pregnant with his child.

The first time that Wayland talks to Dodger, the teenager is lifting weights. When Wayland offers some weightlifting advice, Dodger is rude and standoffish. Peri and Denim are more accepting of Wayland soon after they meet him.

However, the cold response from Dodger makes Wayland uncomfortable, and Wayland skips out on Dolores’ invitation to stay for breakfast. Wayland says he needs to use the bathroom. Instead, he leaves by the house’s back door without saying goodbye.

The next time Dolores sees Wayland, she’s furious at how he snuck out and snubbed her and her family. He says he’s sorry, and she quickly forgives him. Viewers can see where this relationship is going to go. And it does go that way: Wayland ends up moving in with Dolores and becomes a stepfather figure to the kids.

Pastor Gail believes that ex-cons are less likely to re-offend if they’re in a stable relationship with a love partner. She wrote a recommendation to Wayland’s parole officer Raf Ortiz (played by Joseph Bertót) to give permission for Wayland to move out of the church’s spare room and move in with Dolores. However, Raf warns Wayland about the pressures of raising children. The parole officer is skeptical that Wayland can find a job that can pay enough money to support a household of five people.

And finding this type of job is one of the toughest challenges for Wayland, whose options are limited since a lot of places won’t hire ex-prisoners who were convicted of felonies. To make some quick money, Wayland sells his blood. His foul-mouthed cousin Violet (played by Dana Millican) happens to see Wayland coming out of plasma center while she’s driving down the street, and she offers to put in a good word for him at a local auto parts shop/junkyard. It’s kind of a hilarious scene because Violet has this conversation while she stopped her car on the street. Drivers behind her get irritated, and she curses at them to drive around her.

Wayland gets a part-time job at the auto shop, but the salary is very low. (His first paycheck is only a little more than $126.) With financial pressure increasing, Wayland is tempted to take an offer from his biker friend Kurt (played by Ryan Findley) to do some work for Kurt in Kurt’s drug-dealing business. The movie shows whether or not Wayland takes Kurt’s offer.

“Lorelei” shows in a very naturalistic way how Wayland’s relationships with Dolores and her children evolve and go through ups and downs. He eventually learns to trust of all of the children. Peri gets along with Wayland so well that she makes it clear that she likes Wayland more than she likes Dolores, which leads to Dolores feeling hurt and jealous. There’s a sequence involving Peri’s birthday that exemplifies this turmoil.

Dolores’ kids are never shown at school, but there’s mention of the bullying they get because other students tease them for coming from a “trashy” family. In addition, Denim is bullied for being a gender non-conforming child. It’s a problem that neither Dolores nor Wayland really know how to handle.

Dolores is frustrated over being in a dead-end job and wondering what would have happened if she and Wayland had moved to Los Angeles. Wayland seems content to stay in Oregon, so there’s a question if that will be dealbreaker in this relationship. And there are signs that Dolores hasn’t given up her passion for swimming.

The movie has some artistic-looking dream sequences that are supposed to be reminiscent of one of Wayland and Dolores’ best dates when they were teenagers: When they went to a beach to look at the ocean. “Lorelei” creatively uses the ocean and swimming as metaphors for escape, drowning in fear, or a sort of rebirth.

One of the more realistic aspects of “Lorelei” is that it doesn’t tie up Wayland’s financial problems nicely in a neat little bow. For example, in one part of the movie, Wayland impulsively buys an old, run-down ice cream truck that can still operate. Wayland can’t really explain why he bought this truck, but he has vague plans that he might refurbish the truck to start his own ice-cream truck business.

It’s not really spoiler information to reveal that the movie never shows if Wayland followed through on this sort-of goal, because it’s very true-to-life that many people act this way with unfocused goals that they might or might not pursue. The ice cream truck is almost symbolic of how Wayland wishes that he could go back to simpler times when he was a child. At any rate, Denim and Peri love the truck, which is used as somewhat of a device for comic relief, when Wayland drives this conspicuous ice-cream truck in some sketchy situations involving the biker gang.

“Lorelei” might be a letdown to viewers who are expecting a more action-oriented or more melodramatic film instead of the naturalistic way that this movie flows in telling the story. Dolores and Wayland have arguments that are believable. Their rekindled romance doesn’t go smoothly like a fairytale. And there are no real villains in the story—just people trying to get by in the best way that they can.

Malone’s compelling portrayal of Dolores is of someone who’s been damaged and disappointed by life. She loves her kids, but she thinks they deserve better than what she can offer to them. And that feeling of not being “good enough” has slowly chipped away at her core sense of self until she makes a decision to try to try to heal herself in the best way that she can.

Wayland’s emotional arc in “Lorelei” is a lot easier to predict, but Schreiber’s portrayal of this complicated character is still intriguing to watch. At one point in the movie, Wayland says that being in prison changed him. It’s up to viewers to figure out or intepret how he’s changed, since the flashbacks to his teenage years with Dolores are very brief. Schreiber gives a spot-on performance of someone who’s gradually learning that vulnerability can co-exist with masculinity.

It’s also fascinating to watch how Wayland adjusts to becoming an instant “stepfather.” There are moments that will pull at viewers’ heartstrings when Denim asks Wayland more than once if Denim can call him “Dad.” Wayland’s response is a little different every time.

As Dolores’ children, actors Perry, Borgerding and Pascoe-Sheppard make admirable feature-film debuts in “Lorelei.” In real life, Pascoe-Sheppard is non-binary, using the pronoun “they” for their identity, according to the “Lorelei” production notes. Kudos to director Doyle for making the effort to cast a gender-non-conforming role with an actor who is gender-non-conforming instead of taking the easier path of casting a cisgender actor in the role.

“Lorelei” is a specific story about an emotionally wounded couple and the children they are raising, but the movie effectively speaks to universal truths about how insecurities and being held back by past mistakes can affect people’s perceptions of themselves and others. And the movie is ultimately a meaningful story showing that family is not what you’re born into but what you make of it.

Vertical Entertainment released “Lorelei” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on JUly 30, 2021.

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