Shut Up

Burnt Orange Productions and the University of Texas Film Institute were launched to give Austin film students “hands-on experience in all aspects of filmmaking.” With their debut production, The Quiet, they teach one of the curriculum’s toughest lessons: If you want to make a living working on other people’s movies, you’re going to invest your talent in some dogs along the way.

The puzzling question is how this script was selected. When Burnt Orange opened its doors to screenplay submissions, one imagines they weren’t praying for a handful of After School Specials rolled into one: Here we have the self-medicating mom (Edie Falco), the daughter-molesting father (Martin Donovan), some bullying cheerleaders, a misunderstood deaf orphan (I’m not kidding yet), and a transvestite skinhead who ritually cuts his arms with razor blades (OK: That subplot’s being saved for the sequel).

This avalanche of high-school-melodrama clichés could be fodder for some serious guilty pleasure or wink-wink satire, but The Quiet is an exploitation movie without the chutzpah to get to second base, much less go all the way. It’s a parody without humor.

In fact, there’s evidence that somebody involved takes this all seriously: The story is narrated with occasional voiceover by Dot (Camilla Belle), the deaf-mute who has come to live with the Deers after losing her father in a traffic accident. (Her mother died when Dot was 7, whereupon Dot mysteriously lost her hearing and voice.) Dot talks about her life obliquely, with frequent references to Beethoven and occasional metaphors about water and drowning. The monologues would pass for artsy in a junior-year English class, so they’re more-or-less appropriate.

Her desire to live in wordless solitude is thwarted by Nina Deer, who takes Dot’s misfortunes as a personal affront. Played by one of TV’s most annoying twentysomething starlets, Elisha Cuthbert (24), Nina is a queen-bee cheerleader whose nastiness is surpassed only by that of her buddy Michelle — whose sole point in the screenplay is to indulge the filmmakers’ desire to hear a teenage girl use a certain four-letter word as often as possible.

When Dot stumbles across the family’s incestuous secret, Nina reacts with a mixture of fear, anger, and shame that is hard to decipher. She boasts to Dot that she intends to kill her father for what he’s doing to her, but is this genuine or just another mean joke? Nina seems insincere (or maybe Cuthbert just can’t put the emotions across) but Dot is convinced.

What she does in response, however, is puzzling. There are twists and revelations ahead for the extended Deer clan, but some of them seem accidental and others make no sense. The writers appear never to have decided what kind of movie they wanted to make. As for the director — judging from the bad performances given here by some good actors — it seems Jamie Babbit couldn’t have bent the movie to her will even if she knew what she wanted.

It’s Film Production 101 for UT’s film students: The best gaffers, sound recordists, and set decorators in the world can’t save a movie that should have been killed in pre-production.
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