Uncertain Terms

 

Cast: India Menuez, David Dahlbom, Tallie Medel, Cindy Silver, Hannah Gross, Casey Drogin

Director: Nathan Silver

Running Time: 1 hour 11 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Writer-director Nathan Silver makes the kind of idiosyncratic lo-fi indie films which often generate festival buzz, only to vanish into the netherworld of VOD hell shortly thereafter. His last two features, Exit Elena and Soft in the Head, were exceptional examples of go-for-broke filmmaking (both literally and aesthetically), cementing him as a genuinely exciting voice in the indie scene. If Soft in the Head proved Silver's knack for staging a swirling mosaic of Brooklyn life with unsympathetic characters, then Uncertain Terms just as easily showcases his skills at scaling back further into the realm of muted melodrama. This is not the kind of film which catapults indie darlings into the Hollywood spotlight or snags them a Netflix Original series. It's much too understated, too impressionistic, too astute at nailing it's character's foolish yearning and untapped potential. It's a film which will likely be labeled "slight" or "inconsequential", but that's severely undervaluing Silver's accomplishment here. He makes it look easy, and his actors (many of them unprofessionals) follow suit.

Silver's films have never really been concerned with plot, and Uncertain Terms is no different. Essentially, it's the story of Robbie (David Dahlbom), a 30-year-old who arrives at a refuge house for unstable pregnant girls run by his aunt, Carla (Cindy Silver). However, it's just as much about how the arrival of this world-weary man upsets the communal bond the girls have formed, particularly in regards to Nina (India Menuez), a waifish, soon-to-be mother with a dim-witted boyfriend (Casey Drogin) who strikes up a flirtatious relationship with Robbie. Incidentally, Robbie is also going through a painful separation from his wife, which places him firmly in the cross-hairs of the girl's affections. At first, he keeps to himself; building cabinets and digging trenches, but at a certain point, he's drawn to Nina in a way that feels organic, if ultimately problematic. The majority of the film simply presents contained sequences where the girls sit around and chat, take walks, interact with Godmother Cindy, and pine for the mysterious Robbie. Jealousy and envy crops up when of the other girls (Tallie Medel) becomes obsessed with seducing him, even as he clearly has no interest in her advances. While this may sound like the recipe for a trite domestic melodrama, Silver never allows his film to go off the rails emotionally, choosing to keep things grounded in quasi-reality.

What makes Uncertain Terms such a special film, beyond the evocative cinematography and slice-of-life naturalism, is it's near perfect distillation of that turning point in a person's life where change is an inevitable force. Nina is too young and unformed to realize her attraction to a 30-year-old man is doomed, and conversely, Robbie's hitting rock bottom due to the devastating revelation of his wife's infidelity mean his poor decision-making stems from a place of discombobulating pain. Silver removes judgement and merely captures their burgeoning connection through sensitively handled scenes of quiet interaction and playful conversation. For example, the moment where Robbie teaches Nina how to drive is one of the year's best sequences; simple, sublime, and true, capturing the look of pure joy on Nina's face as she experiences something exhilarating for the very first time. This relationship may be inappropriate, but Silver manages to convince us, much like his deluded characters, that it means something. Much of this has to do with Menuez's remarkable performance as Nina. At times, she seems wise beyond her years; while at others, her emotional insecurities remind us that she's still only a child. The shadow of impending motherhood and her boyfriend's lack of maturity causes her to be drawn to what she believes is someone who will take care of her; someone older, more wise and understanding of life's hardships. However, despite his age, Robbie is in a clear state of arrested development, which is further intensified by heartbreak.

Uncertain Terms may be too haphazardly opaque for some viewers who prefer narrative arcs and an explicit point of view, but the situations presented here are complicated, and the much like real life, not easily categorized. In it's brief 71 minutes, Silver takes us on an emotional journey without ever cramming in overly written scenes of catharsis, (though there are a few moments that, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, could have felt contrived). In it's own unobtrusive way, the film gets at something essential about both growing up fast as well as refusing to act one's age; conjuring a tactile poignancy much closer to the heartaches and joys of the real world than we may be comfortable identifying with.