That homemade cherry pie you see Emily carrying in the opening scene of “Soft & Quiet”? It’s not what you think. But then, neither is Emily, a tall blond kindergarten teacher who cuts through the woods behind school to attend a gathering of like-minded women. Women who call themselves “Daughters for Aryan Unity” and complain about concepts such as “reverse racism.” Upon arriving, Emily removes the aluminum foil and reveals a giant swastika carved into the crust. It’s her idea of a joke — like the transgressive Nazi salute she sneaks in the parking lot after the meeting.
You know what else Emily tells herself is just a joke? Gathering her spiteful white friends and driving out to the house of a local waitress — a woman who isn’t white, and who doesn’t fit Emily’s narrow idea of racial superiority — with the goal of confiscating her passport. But that’s not a joke; it’s a hate crime, and writer-director Beth de Araújo wants audiences to feel the pure, horrific force of what such people are capable of, especially when they put their prejudices together.
“The media like to paint us as these, like, big scary monsters,” one of the women tells Emily, who’s played with chilling conviction by Stefanie Estes (“Mary Last Seen”). Their meeting serves as a “safe space” for noxious ideas, which de Araújo suggests these women think and say when in like-minded company. Maybe she’s right. Diversity initiatives and evolving social values have threatened their standing, so these white supremacists — one of whom confides that her daddy was a chapter president of the Ku Klux Klan — have adapted. Instead of changing their views, they’ve rebranded: They’re “soft on the outside,” quiet in public, but organized.
As a teacher, Emily is uniquely positioned to encourage the little white boys in her class to be more assertive. (We see her doing just that in an early scene, when she instructs a kid to reprimand an immigrant cleaning woman.) Emily works with kindergartners, but de Araújo’s production company is called Second Grade Teacher, and the reason is found in the press notes: “She reminded me of my second grade teacher who put all of the POC into the lowest reading group and belittled my parents in front of me,” de Araújo’s director’s statement explains. “It is insidious how purposefully planted these women are in systems of education and information.”
Again, maybe she’s right. I hadn’t thought of it before, but that’s why it’s so important that independent cinema allows us to hear from more than just white male voices. For more than a century, American movies have been reinforcing negative stereotypes about people of color. D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” cast the KKK as chivalrous crusaders, for crying out loud. It’s high time we heard from the other side. Emily and her Aryan sisters are monsters, and it makes sense that Blumhouse (a company that deals almost exclusively in horror) would take an interest in this project.
Shot in — or at least presented as — a single 89-minute take, “Soft & Quiet” plays like the first act of a Quentin Tarantino movie, as the villains give us every reason to hate them. Nothing is off-limits — not hate speech, not homophobia, not the N-word. When Tarantino so transgresses, we can stomach it because we know that such irredeemable characters will get what’s coming to them (his last seven features have been bloody vengeance stories), whereas de Araújo doesn’t give us that satisfaction.
In addition to Emily, this white-supremacist club consists of new recruit Leslie (Olivia Luccardi) and single gal Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta), whom the young moms (Mahoney and Rebekah Wiggins) offer to help find husbands — yet another of the group’s tactics for maintaining whatever genetic superiority they imagine they possess. Convenience store owner Kim (Dana Millican) is the most outspoken, adding anti-Semitic conspiracy talk to the mix.
After getting kicked out of the local church, four of the women drive to Kim’s shop, where a confrontation with two Asian American customers, Anne (Melissa Paulo) and Lily (Cissy Ly), leaves them feeling aggrieved. Never mind that the disrespect originates with the white women, and it’s Kim who pulls a gun and makes the situation dangerous. That’s when Emily decides it would be fun to teach Anne a lesson, so they hop in the minivan — along with Emily’s boyfriend (Jon Beavers), outnumbered and emasculated — and break into Anne’s house. Then Anne comes home, and things get ugly … or much, much uglier than they already were.
“Soft & Quiet” is deeply unpleasant to watch, but that’s the point. The “oner” strategy makes it all the more uncomfortable (props to DP Greta Zozula), turning us into more than just witnesses — passive accomplices, really, incapable of interfering as the situation snowballs. The format shows that de Araújo has serious filmmaking chops: She can orchestrate and sustain the energy for the duration, after seeding clues in the first half-hour. But it also paints the movie into a corner, spending an uncomfortable amount of time walking, driving and standing around. “Soft & Quiet” probably would have been more effective if it had been shot and cut like a normal feature, especially in the wobbly last act. In the end, the single-shot conceit feels like overkill — an attention-grabbing stunt in a film that would’ve gotten our attention regardless. It’s not every day you see a bunch of “nice” white ladies serving up an openly racist American pie.