A Lifetime movie on crack, “The Quiet” dredges up every lurid cliche from the well of teen hormonal havoc in a tale of dysfunctional family meltdown that seems unsure whether to push for suburban-Gothic psychosexual excess or tongue-in-cheek malevolence. Following “But I’m a Cheerleader,” director Jamie Babbit throws much more than plain old lesbian tendencies at her girls this time around in a movie high on ominous atmosphere that goes so wildly off-base it becomes a borderline guilty pleasure. Commercial chances will depend on teens dumb enough to buy it or adults stoned enough to find it funny.
Following the death of her widowed father, Dot (Camilla Belle) is taken in by her adoptive godparents, Paul (Martin Donovan) and Olivia (Edie Falco) Deer. Deaf and silent since age 7 when her mother died, Dot is sullen and introspective. She is treated like a freak by the Deers’ hostile daughter Nina (Elisha Cuthbert), whose poisonous behavior goes unchecked by mom and dad.
Dot fits in even less in the “mean girls” world of high school, finding refuge only in banging out a few bars of Beethoven on the music room Steinway.
As Dot quietly observes her new environment, it soon becomes apparent that the Deers are not the Cleavers. Decorator Olivia is a pill-popping zombie, while Paul regularly pops Nina, phoning her at school to ask, “Are you wearing your cheerleader outfit?”
Pretty soon, everyone is unburdening their secrets to Dot, who has secrets of her own. Nina wants to kill dad (her vengeful love-hate feelings almost find an outlet in a steam-iron incident), Paul acknowledges that he’s sick and needs help, while poor Olivia just wants the right wallpaper and tchotchkes.
Into the murky mix, screenwriters Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft stir some barely closeted lesbian desire from slutty cheerleader (what is it with Babbit and the pom-pom girls?) Michelle (Katy Mixon, hilarious), whose bedroom is pure contempo-bordello, and who makes best pal Nina look like a rank amateur in the bitchstakes.
Possibly unintended laughs come from the “surprisingly” sensitive and not quite hunky enough hunk Connor (Shawn Ashmore), a sex-addicted jock with a learning disorder who’s also a washout on the basketball court. Spurred by the belief that Dot can’t hear him, Connor lets rip with some timeless seduction dialogue: “I can smell your hair. It smells like cucumbers. I got really, really hard last night.” It’s around this point the suspicion takes root that the writers might in fact be joking. However, the push in this direction is far too hesitant.
While it’s great fun to see piano wire being employed in carnage again, the film is derailed by its own silliness. This is too bad, since stepsisters Dot and Nina, once they learn to communicate, might have been intriguingly complex characters in a teen thriller with a minimum of logic and subtlety. And Belle and Cuthbert provide more-than-adequate echoes of the Thora Birch-Mena Suvari dynamic.
Babbit does well at teasing out an environment of lurking everyday evil and the movie works best when Dot is locked in silent observational mode, looking poised to unleash some terrible pent-up force on the cracked suburban world. While there’s little detail brought to that nondescript world, d.p. M. David Mullen’s high-definition, widescreen camerawork supplies a lucid, moody look, matched by Jeff Rona’s brooding score.