Every once in a while, I see a movie that feels truly unique, and when that happens I tend to obsess over the process instead of the result. For better or worse, some films are just different, and while I definitely appreciate that difference, sometimes I really just have to wonder why.
Soft in the Head is different, and I spent much of the film wondering. I never found an answer.
Soft in the Head
Director: Nathan Silver
Release Date: April 18, 2014 (NYC)
Natalia’s life is terrible. Really, truly depressing. But it’s hard to feel for her. I couldn’t tell if there was something fundamentally wrong with her or if she’s just a pathetic drunk with no hope or future, but it seemed to be the latter, and that’s hard to sympathize with. All she ever does is alienate everyone and everything around her in the most bizarre ways. In the opening scene, her boyfriend is shouting at her because she’s dressed up for someone else; she just slurs in response. After a minute, he pulls off the wig she had apparently been wearing, and I got really, really confused. The “Why?”s started going off in my head, not about the film but about her. Why was she wearing a wig? Why was she wearing that wig?
After the ensuing fight, he is her ex-boyfriend. She hits the bottle hard, and while she drinks, she messes up everybody around her. Part of the issue with her character, though, is that there’s never a good side. Soft in the Head never demonstrates why, exactly, anybody likes her in the first place. Are people just a sucker for accents (she has some sort of European accent by the way)? Was she a good person in the past? She’s already on the downward spiral when the film starts, and there’s no redemption or even sense of what redemption could look like. Natalia is a hopeless case, and while there are undoubtedly people like that in reality, it doesn’t really make for a compelling arc. Things get bad, worse, worse, worse, worse, worse, much worse, and then the movie ends.
And the whole thing takes place in close-ups. Hope you like watching faces, because I’d estimate that two-thirds of the film is a medium-close-up or closer, and I could count on one hand the number of shots that are wider than a medium. This means that there is never a real release of tension and the spatial relationship of characters and their environments are never clear. It builds for the entire 70-ish minutes of the runtime. Fortunately, the short runtime means that it doesn’t really get frustrating, but it’s disorienting and just a bit exhausting.
At times, though, this seems less like an intentional framing choice and more of a result of its aspect ratio. Like any “serious” feature film, the film is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with black bars above and below the image. Nothing special, except the movie doesn’t feel like it was intended for those bars. The way the top and bottom of the frame so frequently cuts off… well, everything, makes it feel like a decision made at the last minute. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking extensively about the use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and how it fits/does not fit certain types of shots. Wider shots are made more personal, but close-ups can become a bit too personal.
Still, there is one benefit of the overuse of close-ups: the actors can really show off their chops. If the performances couldn’t hack it, the film would completely fall apart, but all of the actors do a good job of embodying their characters. Some are definitely better than others, but I had few complaints. The two most interesting characters are Nathan and David, each of whom clearly suffers from some sort of mental illness. Painfully long scenes show the world failing to understand their issues, and it’s honestly sad. I felt for both of these characters more than any others, and that’s a testament to the performances. Theodore Bouloukos’s turn as David is especially powerful, because he’s put in some particularly uncomfortable positions, and it’s hard to believe that he enjoyed degrading himself in the way he did.
And it would be interesting to see how David (and any of the other characters) were portrayed in Soft in the Head’s script, especially in terms of dialogue. While the dialogue never comes off as ad-libbed, it also rarely felt vital, and much of it is never heard. During the numerous group scenes, multiple people talk simultaneously, turning everything into garbled noise. And since there’s no overarching narrative other than “Natalia goes places and interacts with people” (except for one scene where the film leaves her entirely, which is kind of bizarre), each scene has its own sort of emotional mini-arc, but it doesn’t come out in the dialogue, which always devolves into people yelling at each other.
It really is a bizarre film watch, and I often just had to wonder why.