' Cinema Romantico: Uncertain Terms

Monday, June 15, 2015

Uncertain Terms

For wanting to escape the stresses of reality in Brooklyn and find a quiet space in the country where he can think and put his life into some sort of perspective, Robbie (David Dahlbom) sure has picked a strange place. That is, an isolated house run by Carla (Cindy Silver) where she provides room and board to teen moms-to-be whose for whom their family life is either tenuous or non-existent. Robbie takes a work as a handyman, which theoretically allows for mind-clearing manual labor even though his various chores slowly fade from view on screen the more he is pulled into the home’s one-of-a-kind ecosphere. “Uncertain Terms” emerges is something of a bizarrely beautiful marriage between Clint Eastwood’s schoolhouse psycho-sexual nightmare “The Beguiled” and the lo-fi modern melodrama of Joe Swanberg. It’s a slice-of-life served with a vial of poison.


Despite the seeming expanse of this rural setting, the film induces emotional and physical claustrophobia, sticking primarily to the confines of Carla's comfy if unostentatious home. Gradually the home's inhabitants ingratiate themselves into Robbie's psyche. Through the prism of their youthful unworldliness and mostly male-free environment this otherwise plain jane of a man comes across intrinsically cosmopolitan, like a GQ cover model. Despite himself, he plays the part they require, suddenly existing in a world where almost every female at once idolizes and yearns for him; eventually he comes to believe in it too.

Flirtations ensue with Jean (Tallie Medel) and Nina (India Menuez), whose boyfriend (Casey Drogin), accented with a piercing between his eyes that betrays his desperation to be hard, turns up, a reminder of the real world looming just beyond. He grows jealous of Robbie. Cringingly, Robbie grows jealous of him. At times the film seems primed for horror, like an excursion in a rowboat out on a lake where you keep waiting for one paddle to drop and a cover-up to ensue. It's admirable, though, how Silver proposes these typical avenues only to opt for an alternate route. He's not interested in sensationalizing a story that almost seems to be begging for it.

Suffering from a slow-burning disconnect, Robbie mostly ignores cellphone calls from his fiancĂ©, and when he does talk to her he alludes to her cheating on him as the cause of this sorta split; but it’s telling that we only hear their from his perspective. It’s a he-said/she-said but we only hear what he has to say. Out here, he can formulate a whole new narrative, one that makes nothing but sense, even if that narrative is pure fantasy. And Nathan Silver’s filmmaking is notable for how ably he filters that fantasy through the lens of everyday. Robbie and Nina flint away for an evening and he teaches her to drive, this palpably disturbing moment when an event typically associated with father/daughter acquires twisted sexual charge. Later, at Nina’s birthday party, the two of them dance in the midst of having just concocted some delirious scheme to run away together. It could never happen. It shouldn’t happen. But for a moment, it feels like it will, and the camera captures that blissed out phantasm with an unaffected poetry. Then, it collapses.

Pregnancy at the movies often is more about metaphorical rebirth than actual childbirth, and Silver quietly picks away at that emblem, illustrating its emptiness. It’s past lives and repeated behaviors that continually threaten to undermine the characters. Escape from them is illusory.

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