Nina Deer's (Elisha Cuthbert) life is infused with sex. At school, she is attached at the hip to her best friend Michelle (Katy Mixon), a girl who is seemingly unable to talk about anyone without announcing that she wants to "f*ck him," or demanding that know if Nina thinks he wants to do the same to her. When not talking specifically about sex, Michelle wonders aloud about the genitalia of the boys in the area, specifically that of basketball star Connor (Shawn Ashmore) who, yes, she also wants to do. At home, meanwhile, it's clear that Nina is being sexually abused by her father, a fact that dominates virtually every moment of her life. With Michelle, she plays the part of the easily-shocked, virginal friend. With her father (a miscast Martin Donovan, looking uncomfortable and out of place), she's something else entirely, and finds herself deeply conflicted about their relationship. She knows she's being abused, and fantasizes in great detail about killing her father, both to punish him and free herself. On the other hand, though, she's profoundly aware of her sexual power over him, and takes secret, forbidden pleasure in the way he responds to her. Throw into this mix a mother (Edie Falco) who prefers the oblivion of painkillers to the reality of her own household and a newly-arrived deaf and dumb godchild (Dot, played by Camilla Belle), and you've got the The Quiet, a movie seething with unrealized potential.
When Dot's beloved father -- her only living parent -- dies, she's left alone and sent to live with her godparents and their only child, Nina. Deaf like her father was, Dot also refuses to speak, and communicates through sign language and lip-reading, if at all. Nina is everything Dot isn't: Blonde, popular and a cheerleader, one of those girls who occupies the top of the social ladder at every high school. Her new sister, on the other hand, is a social nightmare: Not only does Dot not speak, but she seems entirely uninterested in engaging in the school social structure, preferring to spend her days hiding in the bathroom. There's no fear, though, in Dot's hiding. She simply wants to be alone, and is turned off by the mad rush of bodies around her. As she explains in a voice over (added after the film's premiere at lat year's Toronto International Film Festival), Dot is completely whole only when alone; the more people she's with, the more lost and fragmented she feels.
Though Nina initially treats Dot with the same undisguised disgust with which she views both her parents and herself, it's not long before the silent girl becomes her unwitting confidant. In fits of self-loathing and rage, Nina whispers sexually explicit stories into Dot's ear in the middle of the school cafeteria, unburdening herself while simultaneously keeping the secrets she and her father share. Telling Dot, she reasons, is like screaming herself raw in an empty room: No on hears but she feels better, if only for a moment. Eventually, Dot turns into a sort of erotic dumping ground. Not only does Nina confide in her unhearing ears but Connor, too, finds himself intrigued by the newcomer, expressing his affection and desire through whispered stories of masturbation and arousal.
The tragedy of The Quiet, however, is less its story than the fact that none of it is successfully carried off on screen. Everything about the movie is slightly awry, and instead of high tension and suspense, audiences are left with flat emotion and sequences so deadly serious they become almost comical. Worst of all are the explicit sequences that seem composed entirely to shock audiences, rather than for their relevance to the film; it feel as if Cuthbert (in a game, committed performance) is talking about her father's nipples just for us, because it's the sort of content that will get the movie attention. The real problem here, though, is that we know that's not why those lines were written. There's a melodramatic sincerity to the film and its characters, and director Jamie Babbit clearly had the best of intentions -- but the thing just doesn't work. From the start, we're emotionally on the outside of the story, unegaged by the pouting, silent Dot or the absurdly dysfunctional Deers. The moments of humor -- intended, one suspects, to relax and draw us in -- are so amateurish and obvious (Complaining about the news on the television, Nina says "Why can't we watch something that affects us?") that they succeed only in driving us away. The aggressively haunting music and vast, empty Deer home have the same effect: Rather than ominous and lonely, the score and on-screen space seem cardboard and contrived, created only for unachieved emotional effect.
At times, it's difficult to watch The Quiet, because a group of actors are giving their all -- albeit entirely unsuccessfully -- to a small, possibly controversial film in which they clearly believe. Over and over again, I was reminded of the Bruce Willis disaster Color of Night, another film whose emotional power over its audience was horrendously overestimated by its creators. While The Quiet is by no means as bad as Color of Night, it shares with that film a tremendous seriousness about its own purpose, and a tragic misunderstanding of its relationship with an audience that, more often than not, is left laughing when it should be gasping.