(Exit Elena opened theatrically in New York City at the reRun Theater on Friday, July 12, 2013. It previously screened at the Brandon Harris-curated Hammer To Nail Screening Series at Brooklyn Fireproof—along with Penny Lane’s HTN Short Film Contest winner The Voyagers—at 7:30pm on Sunday, February 10, 2013, and world premiered at the 2012 Edinburgh Film Festival. Visit the film’s official website and Facebook page to learn more. NOTE: This review was first published on November 13, 2012, and was also published on July 11, 2013, as a Pick of the Week review for Filmmaker Magazine.)
The biggest challenge facing the lead character of Nathan Silver’s hilarious Exit Elena during her first fumbling stint as a live-in nursing assistant isn’t her elderly patient. In fact, if Elena could simply take care of Florence as she’s supposedly been hired to do, she might be the perfect aide to help the woman with her flailing health. When she’s actually able to find the time to take care of Florence, Elena reveals herself to be a tender young woman who seems to be a natural at her new profession.
No, the real problem she faces is Florence’s son Jim and his wife Cindy, a ruinous married couple whose habitual arguments continue to disrupt and detangle the intention of Elena’s work. Cindy (played with perfect comic effortlessness by the director’s mother, Cindy Silver) refuses to consider that the nurse’s sole purpose here is to take care of her mother-in-law. A nagging and smothering woman, Cindy increasingly insists that Elena also act as her new live-in friend, confidante and Zumba aerobic dance partner. Not to mention that it would be even better if Elena could act as a possible child surrogate for Cindy’s own son, Nathan (played by the director). After an accident sends Florence to the hospital, leaving Elena and Cindy alone to almost, suddenly, surprisingly, become actual friends, the man-child Nathan arrives right in time to replace the role Elena has been forced into filling in all along.
As Elena, Kia Davis delivers a subtle and delicate performance. A woman looking for her right place in the world, Davis carefully weaves an honest portrait of somebody who doesn’t completely know what she wants but does know what she doesn’t want. Unfortunately for Elena, she’s too polite and too worried about keeping her job to speak up and tell the truth. If only she would tell Cindy how awful she is, how ignorant she is of Florence’s health! But Elena remains the silent witness of this tense family unit because, in the end, she’s only here to be a nurse, and nothing more; as the film’s true anchor, Davis contains this struggle in her face, the conflict evident in her eyes. It’s a graceful acting debut, and with her “straight man” role rubbing up against Cindy Silver in the “funny man” role, the film is a genuine laugh-out-loud comedy with a pinch of dark drama thrown in for good measure.
The punctuated editing (by Silver, Davis and Cody Stokes) and seemingly homemade tracking shots (made with a shopping cart or wheelchair, possibly?) add a buoyancy to the film’s unique rhythm. Silver has a taste for letting us float through the scenes; often we are almost a fly on the wall, but never are we very far away from seeing things through Elena’s eyes. Every bit character is given at least one moment to be a real human being, and you can almost feel the director relishing in each actor’s onscreen presence. More than anything, though, Exit Elena feels like a ragged love letter written by Silver to two very different women: his lead actress and his mother. It’s a sweet and charming tribute to them both.
— Dustin Guy Defa