There is a startling scene in Nathan Silver’s Soft In The Head where Natalia, a reckless woman/child who causes trouble wherever she goes, looks at her reflection in a cracked compact mirror. The effect of the crack distorts her face to where she looks like one of the garish women in a Willem De Kooning painting. It’s jolting, for we’ve suspected Natalia is a monster of sorts, the type of young woman who is destined to be a skid row casualty, but is still young enough to manipulate a few men here and there. In the cracked reflection, we get a glimpse of Natalia’s true self, or at the very least, a peek at her grotesque future.
When we first see Natalia she’s being smacked around by her boyfriend. She leaves him, but intends to go back at some point because she believes the reunion will be passionate. Love and self-destruction seem abutted in her mind. After showing up drunk at the family home of her friend Hannah, Natalia wanders into the night, oblivious to the catcalls from street people who mock her. She intends to spend the night on the sidewalk, until she meets Maury, a well-meaning fellow who has turned his home into a sanctuary for derelicts. Maury invites Natalia over for dinner where she sits among men seemingly plucked from a touring production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Natalia isn’t intimidated, though. She’s in her element, letting a bunch of homeless men fawn over her.
Even at her lowest, Natalia’s able to work her way into the hearts of vulnerable males, including Hannah’s shy brother Nathan. He’s so smitten by her that he steals one of his mother’s necklaces for her, which sets off a major row in his very old-fashioned Jewish household. Nathan’s parents seem a bit thick – their son can barely dress himself or hold a conversation (Natalia describes him at one point as “mildly autistic…like a baby…”) but they spend an entire scene badgering him to meet a nice girl and give them some grandchildren. When he announces that Natalia has won his heart, their shock is off the charts.
Some observers have already compared Soft In The Head to the films of John Cassavetes, but the comparison works at only the most superficial level. Cassavetes’ casts were headed by highly charismatic Hollywood actors – Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, etc. Soft In The Head has no such glossy veneer, being made up of unknown New York actors who often look like they’re reaching, trying to be “real,” but also struggling to be amusing. Silver, to his credit, allows his actors plenty of room for a kind of realistic give and take, but his scenes can’t match one of Cassavetes’ high-wire acts. Also, Silver’s not aiming for the kind of philosophical statements that gave Cassavetes’ films an ersatz profundity. Silver’s aiming at smaller targets, but even so, his scenes feel self-conscience, as if he’s a bit too in love with the idea of being a filmmaker. Silver lets the camera linger on Natalia while she combs her hair out of her face, or sucks at her crooked teeth; it’s rare in recent movies that a camera has so desperately adored a female subject, as if Silver, too, is under Natalia’s spell. (Still, even with shots that go on too long, Silver brings the movie in at a tight 75 minutes, something Cassavetes could never do!)
Soft In The Head doesn’t remind me of Cassavetes as much as it reminds me of certain films, novels and plays of the 1960s (i.e. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Dutchman, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon). It was a genre with no name, but the distinctive trait was a melting pot of disparate characters (usually one African-American, a Jew, a war veteran, a hooker, a homosexual, an old man, and a hippie). They’d be thrown together, usually during a power failure or a housing shortage, or they’d be stuck in the same subway car. Tempers would flair. The stories usually ended with a murder or a suicide, the remaining characters huddling together, waiting for the police. Soft In The Head goes that way, too, but not in the way you might imagine.
Silver ignores the usual narrative pattern we’d expect in a film like this one. He’s less interested in developing plots than in throwing some characters together to see what transpires. You can feel his love for these people, but this technique doesn’t allow the characters to take charge of the story. They have altercations that feel like acting class exercises, but nothing moves the plot forward. The sense we get is that the story is fidgeting, chasing its own tail. More, for instance, could have been done with Maury and his band of idiots. Where Silver really dropped the ball was in the storyline involving Natalia and Nathan.
Natalia and Nathan (their names even mirror each other) are two sides of the same person. Both are painfully immature, unable to stake out a spot in the adult world: one is homeless; the other still lives with his parents. Both could be described as soft in the head. Nathan is pure, knowing nothing of the weird games that go on between males and females, while Natalia, dense though she may be, has mastered those games. Nathan is horrified by Natalia’s revelation that she actually enjoys being abused, but just when that part of the story is gaining momentum, Silver lets it trail off…
Perhaps from a youthful flaunting of the rules, Silver shuffles the deck on us and gives us an ending that is unexpected, but also unengaging. He might have been better served if he’d chosen one of his plot strings and followed it to a conclusion, rather than floating from one plot to the next. Silver has some good instincts, though, and I’ll look forward to the day when he acquaints himself with the nuts and bolts of storytelling. As it is, Soft In The Head is a strangely intriguing work. It’s flawed, but unique. No one but Silver could have made it.
Sheila Etxeberría is believable as Natalia, bringing to the role a kind of ratty vulnerability. There are some good turns by other actors, too, including Ed Ryan as the enigmatic Maury, and Theodore Bouloukos as David, the most volatile of Maury’s guests. Carl Kranz, bless him, has an almost thankless role as Nathan. Here’s an isolated young guy who decorates his room with Woody Allen posters as if he’s searching for the right nebbish to model himself after, but instead of meeting Diane Keaton he meets Natalia. Something tells me he’ll soon tear down Sleeper and replace it with The Blue Angel.