Review: SOFT IN THE HEAD, A Drama That Hits Hard, Harder, Hardest

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
Filmmaker Nathan Silver's cinema is a cinema of people. Hard and foul and furious and loveable and resilient people.

Now I know that may seem like a rather odd statement to make, when, after all cinema is full of people. But it seems to me that even many small scale, or quote unquote "low-budget" films, are often adhering to a narrative formula or pattern that can feel rather safe, limiting or even suffocating when it comes to showing us, well, people. Attempts towards genuine, human qualities... to not merely mimic but capture something of real life, or rather the spontaneity of it, finds itself on that fine line between controlled chaos and all-out mayhem, something beyond the narrative grammar we readily know and understand, in that playground between fiction and documentary where near mythic truths and the heart of the human condition lie. These are, no doubt, real lightning-in-a-bottle kind of undertakings. That is why it is such a pleasure (indeed an intense pleasure) to witness Silver and his passionate cast and crew pull this off in nearly every frame of Soft In The Head.

Silver's third feature follows the destructive and despondent Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría) through one hell of a week in New York. After a quite literal drag down fight with her now ex-boyfriend, Natalia seeks solace with her friend Hannah (Melanie J. Scheiner), only to show up drunk during a Shabbat dinner. She then finds acceptance in the oddest of places: a makeshift men's shelter in the apartment of good samaritan Maury (Ed Ryan).  

As it was in his second feature, Exit Elena (reviewed here), Silver's embrace of naturalism further routes his focus on people into that of a microcosm on non-traditional families. By conscious and unconscious choices alike, the groups and individuals in both films edge ever closer to this notion of family, often to then veer away in fright. Or, as it were in Natalia's case, to feel unworthy of it.    

Natalia doesn't so much as throw her shadows down for all to see, but rather storms into any space, her nightmares open and bright and blinding. She is a human cyclone, desperate to land, causing embarrassment, heartache and upset wherever she goes. This may sound exhausting to witness, but if we take a sympathetic ear like Maury, we begin to hone in on a somber portrait of a electric, defiant young woman who truly just needs to stop and rest in comfort and unconditional love.

Etxeberría's turn as Natalia feels so lived in, without any barriers kept in place, that it is something of a marvel to even consider this merely a performance. In turn, every person populating this picture -- from the shelter's cruelly haunted David (Theodore Bouloukos) and boisterous Charlie (Bruce Smolonoff), to the naive and hopeful Nathan (Carl Kranz), ever so in love with manipulative Natalia, to his sister Hannah caught in the middle -- is perfectly cast, adding texture and color to the landscape, and enlivening even the smallest of interactions with Natalia an intensity and sadness that is not soon forgotten. Special mention must go to Ed Ryan as Maury, who is something of a benevolent shepherd in the cacophony that is New York City. There is a gentle and humane sense to this man that may feel unnerving to some because many of us think such men have something sinister to hide. But like Natalia's demons, Maury's genuine and guiding kindness is on full display, pockmarks and all, in a fashion reminiscent of the great Fred Rogers.  

Co-editor and cinematographer Cody Stokes' camera and cutting are just as raw and immediate as the performances. Topsy-turvy and breathy, his lens may feel unhinged, but it is merely trying to keep an eye on, and accent the harried emotions of our players. As we settle into the tumult, an intense and singular intimacy with the images unfold, emphasizing the hurtful and healing power of hands. This camera can at times get so near the micro as to feel almost abstract and impressionistic, and yet Stokes' hand is of a naturalist photographer through and through.  

It is this catch-all tenacity and vivid focus that made Soft In The Head (along with Exit Elena) a favorite film of mine in 2013. It is then by something of a default, for its theatrical release is this week, one of the bright spots of independent cinema in 2014.  
 
To close out, and come full circle: Silver's films are populated with the people we might think we only ever get to experience, unfiltered and unaltered, within the isolation of cinema. These people are in fact the kinds of folk we brush past everyday on the bus, on the sidewalk, in line at the grocery store. Many of these people seem like they are the outliers of society, denizens of the extreme edge; misfits and lost souls about to fall to pieces, once and for all. Certainly they are not us. But they are us, and our families (whatever kind of family that may be), in all their passion and seeming misfortune. These are hard and foul and furious and loveable and resilient people. What Silver has done with Soft In The Head is not so much as sit back and observe the chaos, rather he anticipates the tumultuous, and leans into the fray. He then hands us that cracked mirror, those little reflections of moments, and without any prejudice, or judgment, or shame says, "Here. Look."

Soft In The Head opens in NYC at Cinema Village on April 18. A VOD release is to follow later in the year. To stay updated, please visit and like the film's Facebook page.        
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