Following a successful past few free screenings at Double Double Land in Toronto (209 Augusta Avenue), MDFF filmmaking duo Kazik Radwanski and Dan Mongomery return to the low-key hole in the wall venue tonight (Wednesday, December 18th) for a showcase of a pair of films from Brooklyn filmmaker and Tisch School graduate Nathan Silver. Both are stripped down tales of young women struggling in their lives and purposefully filled with rough edges that could give people splinters, but they’re effective and work nicely as inverse visions on similar themes.
In the opening film, 2012’s Exit Elena, a 19 year old Massachusetts woman (Kia Davis) lands a much needed job as a nurse’s aide and quickly gains employment as a live in care giver. Almost immediately, her actual job (that she’s not particularly all that great at) isn’t the most pressing issue. She’s working for a older man (Jim Chiros) who initially resents Elena’s presence because he wasn’t briefed by his kindly, but overbearing wife (Cindy Silver, Nathan’s real life mother) that someone would be moving in to take care of his elderly and needy mother. Elena often gets awkwardly caught in the middle of the couple’s squabbling back and forth and their growing resentfulness towards each other. It’s a difficult situation that only escalates as the elderly woman’s health problems worsen and the couple’s high strung and stand-offish son (played by Silver) returns home a complete wreck.
For his 2013 effort Soft in the Head, Silver enlists the exceptional work of newcomer Sheila Etxeberria to play Natalia, a young woman living on the streets destroying her life and personal relationships with her rampant alcoholism. Dumped by a physically abusive boyfriend who tosses her out by the arm in the opening scene and hesitantly taken in/booted out by her friend Hannah (Melanie Scheiner), Natalia bounces between the kindness of her friend, the affections of Hannah’s lovesick semi-rebelling Jewish Brother (Carl Kranz), and spending time at an almost exclusively male halfway house run by a kindly, sympathetic man (Ed Ryan).
Besides both having flawed female protagonists who are sometimes their own worst enemies, Silver’s films also deal quite deftly with the issue of support systems. The discomfort that one feels while watching Elena get dragged into one family’s stress is palpable. Elena is just as much of a voyeur in the situation as we are, but she clearly has equally big and generally unseen personal issues that are weighing just as heavily on her. The marital frustration between Chiros and Mrs. Silver feels raw, unforced, and scarily believable, making Elena initially quite sympathetic before a conclusion that suggests a greater survival instinct than she initially lets on. When Silver himself arrives as the obnoxious and unstable son that starts to force himself upon Elena, it makes her already above her pay grade role as family shrink even harder to do. It’s a solid look at an outsider providing surrogate support to a family unit.
Soft in the Head, on the other hand, finds Silver telling the story of setting up a surrogate support system for one of society’s outsiders. Natalia is sympathetic in the opening (a sequence that no one should ever have to go through in real life), but then she continues down a path of self-destruction. She’s not necessarily using those around her (unlike Elena, who eventually does resort to that level), but she has a hard time accepting that anyone would want to help her for more than a few brief moments at a time, and her abrasive, uncouth personality often drives her biggest supporters away for extended periods of time. While Elena’s protagonist is a relatively responsible opportunist, Soft’s leading woman is an irresponsible passive.
While both films hold a considerable amount of thematic interest, Exit Elena is certainly the stronger one. It’s a more comprehensive look at someone being plunked into an awkward situation than Soft’s sometimes malformed final third that stoops to its main character’s inability to look for closure in anything. Soft really isn’t all that assured enough to fully hit the mark with its almost shrug-worthy ending, but there are still plenty of great performances, especially from Etxeberria, Ryan, and Theodore Bouloukos as one of the more demanding and on edge halfway house residents. Elena doesn’t have a concrete ending, either, but it doesn’t rankle as much as Silver’s other film, which comes across as considerably softer despite the arguably more intense subject matter. Even so, Silver’s such a great director that even his weaker ending is still worth puzzling over and thinking about.
Still, both films are free and worthy of supporting, and Silver will be on hand to do Q&As for both films with film writer Calum Marsh. There is also a pair of shorts before each film. Dustin Guy Defa’s Lydia Hoffman Lydia Hoffman playing prior to Elena about a young woman (Hannah Gross) struggling with her own insecurities in the light of a break-up (which thematically and even more explicitly would make a better lead in to Soft in the Head). Before Soft, there’s Eva Michon’s playfully silly Lollipop, a good natured piss take on Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic” video, but with a decidedly different genre of pop song and a bit more creativity.
Let’s hope that Radwanski and Montgomery keep up their screening series in the city for as long as they can and that their turn out continues to grow, allowing them to offer these films for free. They’re among a small handful of people willing to bring the best in microbudget and DIY filmmaking to the city, and much like ReFocus are more than deserving of support from filmgoers who truly want to make Toronto into a world class city for film.