Increasingly prolific indie filmmaker Nathan Silver delivers another compact slice of life in “Uncertain Terms,” an unassuming study of a man hiding out from a disintegrating marriage at his aunt’s home for pregnant teens. At times so slight the entire enterprise threatens to fade away right before your eyes, Silver’s fourth pic in five years still merits a look on the bigscreen for the agile visual contributions of d.p., editor and co-scenarist Cody Stokes. While the film is already making international fest rounds after a Los Angeles fest debut, its broader commercial prospects are even more microscopic than the narrative. One imagines Silver wouldn’t have it any other way.
A self-described “30-year-old man with a receding hairline,” Robbie (David Dahlbom, making a confident film debut) escapes his life in Brooklyn for the isolated upstate abode of his aunt Carla (Cindy Silver, the director’s mother). A knocked-up teenager herself once, Carla now oversees a peaceful retreat that provides safety and stability for expecting girls while also allowing them to evade the judgment of their peers and disapproving adults. Although Robbie is content sticking to himself — sleeping in the basement and doing odd handyman jobs around the property — his arrival causes a hubbub among the girls. Slightly unstable Jean (Tallie Medel) sets her sights on seducing him, but it’s beguiling redhead Nina (India Menuez, following up a small but memorable role in Olivier Assayas’ “Something in the Air”) who really clicks with Robbie.
Both Robbie and Nina are dealing with relationships they’re not entirely sure they want to be in — Robbie with unfaithful wife Mona (Caitlin Mehner), and Nina with swaggering baby daddy Chase (Casey Drogin, credible). Despite their similar situations and sensibilities, the film isn’t designed to suggest they’d be better off together. The age difference between the two is never exactly clear (Menuez was 20 at the time of production), but there’s a hint of forbidden desire on Robbie’s part, especially as the film is told primarily from his point of view. Whether the discomfort arises from his own thorny marital status or from the thought of taking advantage of someone younger, pregnant and under his aunt’s care is all part of the ambiguity. Delicate hints that Nina knows how to play the opposite sex to get what she wants add to the central relationship’s uncertain terms.
At times Silver’s attempt to keep everything as naturalistic as possible through improvised dialogue and Stokes’ nimble camerawork only serves to throw the few dramatic contrivances into sharper relief. A sequence built around the girls swapping stories about getting pregnant feels trumped up compared with a brief laundry-room exchange about life in the house between Nina and new arrival Cammy (Hannah Gross). Jean’s advances toward Robbie and one-sided rivalry with Nina (she tells Nina she slept with Robbie while sitting on the toilet) similarly play like mumblecore meets “Teen Mom,” and Mona’s last-minute arrival on the scene adds a gratuitously histrionic jolt to the story. A lengthy dance scene set to Khia’s 2002 raunch-rap classic “My Neck, My Back” seems like a calculated stab at provocation the film otherwise avoids, and overemphasizes the already viable idea of Robbie’s sexual attraction to Nina.
These missteps aside, Silver offers up a generally assured and compelling film here, one that should keep his career momentum rolling comfortably along. The secret weapon is his mother, Cindy, whose indomitable ability to natter on endlessly provides a deep source of humor and unvarnished honesty. (She previously had a star turn in his 2012 pic “Exit Elena,” on which Dahlbom was d.p.) In fact, Silver’s inspiration for “Uncertain Terms” came from his mother’s real-life experience as a pregnant teenager, some of which she shares onscreen. Making Carla even more central to the action, rather than just a colorful supporting character, would not have been unwarranted.
Assembled on a shoestring budget, “Uncertain Terms” looks better than many films made at significantly greater cost. Alternating between careful compositions and intimate, expressive closeups, Stokes takes full advantage of the scenic locales of rural New York and the unadorned performances Silver elicits from the cast. His intuitive cutting drops the audience in and out of the events in admirably unfussy fashion, representing another key component of an all-around strong tech package.