Soft in the Head

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/02/13 09:28:57

"Not as bad as I thought, not as good as I wanted."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: I don't feel bad about not particularly liking "Soft in the Head", but one of the reasons I don't like it bugs me. I look down on its characters, which means I probably look down on their real-life analogues who are less fortunate than I am, and I don't want to be that guy. Understand, the movie has a ton of other problems, but that it's about folks who don't look like movie stars with five o'clock shadow shouldn't count against it.

Natalia (Sheila Etxeberria) is out on the street after a smacking-around and ejection by her boyfriend; she stops by her friend Hannah's family dinner, makes a scene there, and eventually winds up in the apartment of Maury (Ed Ryan) - not as a one-night stand, but because he has cots in his living room for folks he finds in the street. Hannah (Melanie J. Sheiner) does take her in, but her brother Nathan (Carl Kranz) has a crush on her, which causes all sorts of problems what with him having mental issues and her not being Jewish. And, well, a hot mess.

Most of the characters in this movie are a bit of a disaster - Natalia, Nathan, some of the folks bunking out in Maury's apartment - and it's not necessarily just having made bad choices, but something baked-in. At least one character is clearly mentally ill, Nathan is at the very least in the Asperger's area of the autism spectrum (frustrated viewers may use less charitable words). And while that does make them different from what one typically sees on-screen, it doesn't necessarily make them interesting. Nathan, as he's portrayed, is not likely to make a decision that the audience can really spend much time considering, and Natalia is impulsive to the point of randomness. How do you tell a story with that?

With great difficulty, it turns out. Co-writer/director Nathan Silver may be telling a story about erratic characters, but has a very difficult time providing the clarity needed to examine them. He's fond of dinner-table scenes with overlapping dialogue to a fault, and almost every one of them becomes a sort of din. He has an often-frustrating way of seeming to change course in a way that's needlessly confusing. For instance, when Hannah first takes Natalia in, there's a scene where she's given a key, but a later scene plays like this either isn't the case or there's a scene missing where Hannah has kicked her out in so many words. At another point, Natalia seems to go to bed in Maury's place and wake up in David's room, and there are more head-scratching moments that seem avoidable.

This is what working without a script can do, even if it does give the actors a great deal of freedom to build their characters. Say what you will about Natalia and Nathan being people you'd rather not deal with, Sheila Etxebarria and Carl Kranz make those outlier personalities thoroughly believable, as does Theodore Bouloukos, a "guest" of Maury who seemingly can't stop himself from going to inappropriate to belligerent. There are some weak characters - Moshe & Nechama Kessler are colorful but familiar Jewish parents, and Melanie Scheiner never really gets a chance to demonstrate just how Hannah and Natalia are friends in the first place. On the other hand, Ed Ryan is kind of fantastic as Maury - this guy has got a heart big enough to shame the rest of us without coming across as an insufferable saint; in fact, he can feel like a bit of a patsy. There's this horribly sad, unstated loneliness to him, and it seems to inform his every action.

The movie eventually ends in a way that both fits its arbitrary nature and, maybe, just maybe, puts a character on a different path, even if it doesn't exactly feel like growth. It's kind of hard to have a satisfying finish when everything but certain performances is designed to be frustrating, so maybe that's just as good as "Soft in the Head" can be.

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