“I just entered the country with derringers
‘Cause them Karens just turned into terrorists.”
— “Energy,” Beyonce
There’s something about Emily (Stefanie Estes) that strikes you as being just a little off. Maybe it’s the edginess emanating from this tall, blond woman when we first meet her, though to be fair, she’s taking a home pregnancy test and seems upset by the result. There’s definitely something micro-aggressive about the way she’s glaring at the Hispanic custodian who just passed by her classroom — Emily is a kindergarten teacher — and macro-aggressive in her goading a six-year-old boy into hassling the innocent worker. She certainly seems paranoid when, walking through the woods, she runs into a stranger named Leslie (Olivia Luccardi) and wants to know why the young lady is wandering around the area. Luckily, it turns out that they’re both heading toward the same church around the bend, where a support-group meeting that Emily has co-ordinated is set to take place.
Still, you can’t quite put your finger on why she seems to be ringing alarm bells in your head from the get-go, despite the palpable can-I-speak-to-your-manager-please energy around her. The two go past the pews and up the stairs of the rectory, where the rest of the attendees are already gnoshing on cupcakes and chit-chatting. Pleasantries are exchanged. Introductions are made. Emily puts the pie she’s baked for the occasion down on the table. And once she removes the foil on top, we see that our host has made a delicious-looking cherry pie…with a swastika carved into the top. (Cherry, because apple would have been a little too on the nose.)
And it’s then, right after Emily laughs the symbol off (“Can no one take a joke anymore?”) but before she begins righteously lecturing her fellow ladies on the “multicultural warfare” that threatens their very existence — the moment, in other words, when you fully glean that this support group doubles as a white-supremacy group (as the camera casually pans past their name scrawled on a whiteboard: the Daughters of Aryan Unity) — that you go, Aha, so that’s what was subliminally pushing my uh-oh button! Emily is the leader of a cabal of Neo-Nazi Karens, engaging in a “free exchange of ideas” at this koffeeklatsch. And they’re about to take all that misguided, riled-up energy and channel it into action.
A horror movie that hides its monsters in plain sight, Soft & Quiet is meant to disquiet you from the very beginning, forcing you to ride shotgun with these “jus’ folks” who mix matchmaking suggestions for single members with toxic comments about immigrants and minorities. These women are local shop owners and educators and mothers, “pillars of the community” types on the surface; one gentile Southern matron happens to mention she’s been a lifelong member of the K.K.K., but has been “more active in Stormfront” recently. Leslie and her fellow twentysomething new recruit, Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta), represent the new guard for these suburbanites. The latter thinks she might, in fact be in the wrong place — “I don’t hate anybody,” she swears. Then, with just the tiniest bit of prodding and talk of it being a safe space, Marjorie lets loose on how she was passed up for a promotion and just because she’s white doesn’t mean she has it easy. It’s a baby step to invective and indoctrination, and an even tinier step to actual violence.
And when the violence comes, first via an encounter with two young Asian women in a grocery store — they have a history with Emily’s family, it turns out, though you sense that they have been targeted regardless of any connections — and later during a home invasion gone very wrong, the movie makes you complicit simply by refusing to let you turn away or come up for air. First-time writer-director Beth de Araújo has said that she started writing this film the day after the video of Amy Cooper calling the cops on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park, an incident which underlined the sense that such casual, if undeniably hostile displays of racism had now displaced the burning of crosses — that it wouldn’t just come in recognizable white hoods but behind smiles and a facade of “normal.” It was systematic and bone-deep. She also said that she wanted viewers to feel that they were experiencing a hate crime in real time, which is why the movie is essentially one long take, with 91 minutes of screen time detailing the same 91 minutes it takes for this group to cross a line.
It might seem gimmicky, or worse, a distraction from what de Araújo is trying to do with this descent down a rabbit hole of racist hate, all-American style. But it’s neither of those things. The formal conceit forces you, in fact, to pay attention to how easily combustible incidents like the ones you see in Soft & Quiet are, and acknowledge how embedded into our modern firmament this prettified poison is now. (It’s not a coincidence that Emily is a teacher.) And how, for those who harbor resentments and frustrations, centuries-old prejudices are still being resurrected as scapegoats for people who don’t know where to put there anger. If some of the exchanges you hear between these women seem exaggerated or overly dogmatic, they likely pale in comparison to the real thing. And they’re plenty horrific as presented here.
The filmmaker has mentioned that this extraordinary, extraordinarily uncomfortable look at potluck hatemongering is not a horror movie, per se — the people doing and saying and passing along these things are human, and not monsters. We’d posit that both things can be true. Soft & Quiet slyly buries the lede by letting us know what the title means 30 minutes in, while that initial get together is still in full effect. They must be “soft on the outside,” so that their “vigorous” ideas can be seen as mainstream. And that they’re “secret weapons no one checks at the door” because these ladies next door “tread quietly.” These Neo-Nazi Karens are the Instagram-friendly faces of the far right. They’re also our neighbors, which is why, for many of us, they’re our nightmares. And if this harrowing film does anything, it makes you recognize who and what are around us enough to wake you the fuck up.