UNCERTAIN TERMS

Pregnant Pauses

(Filmmaker Nathan Silver continues to churn out well realzed and introspective ensemble films that seek to scratch well beneath the surface. His latest, Uncertain Terms, is out on the festival circuit before hitting theaters and VOD in early June.)

Working backwards through Nathan Silver’s filmography, from his most recent Stinking Heaven (still making festival rounds) to his previous Uncertain Terms (in limited theatrical release June 5th), one thing is apparent to me: Silver loves ensemble casts of characters sharing intimate space together. Since Silver is a prolific filmmaker, perhaps it’s simply the result of making two movies in such a short amount of time. In Stinking Heaven, there was no central character, and we learned more about the dynamics inside the home for ex-addicts in which the characters lived. Uncertain Terms features a similar living space as its setting, but focuses in on two characters, each in very different but confusing moments in their lives.

Carla Gottlieb (Cindy Silver, the director’s mother) runs the home that is the movie’s setting, a haven for pregnant teenage girls, in hopes that she can help them straighten out their lives and successfully bring them to term. Herself a former teen mother who underwent similar circumstances in a group home, her character provides another contrast with Stinking Heaven. Whereas the married couple in that film were ultimately in over their heads, Carla provides much-needed guidance to her girls and gives the impression she is working from years of experience (it’s worth noting how on point Cindy Silver’s performance is; I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a similar vocation in real life).

The film begins with Robbie (David Dahlbom), Carla’s nephew, arriving at the house to stay for a while and help out with odds and ends while he takes refuge from his crumbling marriage. Robbie mostly keeps to himself and his work, although he shares meals with Carla and the girls, and inevitably ends up the object of desire for at least one of them  (Jean, played by Tallie Medel), whose jealousy he has to deal with after he successfully fends her off. It’s another girl, Nina (India Menuez), with whom Robbie develops a friendship that provides the film’s central narrative thread. Rounding things out is Nina’s often hotheaded boyfriend Chase (Casey Drogin), who naturally becomes hostile when Robbie intervenes in at least one argument, upping the tension further.

For all the potential melodrama, the film is largely understated, with Silver displaying a real sensitivity toward his subjects in every scene. There is a strong narrative arc — one might even call it a plot — but Silver is still intensely interested in his characters, interspersing scenes throughout the film that give us a strong sense of who they are as individuals and what their daily interactions at the home are like. Robbie’s and Nina’s friendship is also developed carefully and attentively — late in the film, when Robbie drops a bombshell of an announcement on Nina, it doesn’t seem implausible that things could have gotten to that point; Robbie’s desire to escape the complications of adulthood and Nina’s need for some kind of stability, not to mention her youthful naïveté, have been delicately and  perceptively conveyed. But for Robbie and Nina to go beyond that point would ring false, and Uncertain Terms gives its characters, and us, a dose of reality when it shows that life’s difficulties can’t so easily be foresworn.

— Michael McWay (@Grand_Epic)

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