Nathan Silver’s last feature, Exit Elena, earned the Brooklyn-based director comparisons to John Cassavetes, with whom he shared an almost perverse affection for domesticity at its most volatile. And yet for all the discomfort its familial warfare sometimes provoked, Elena nevertheless remained a basically good-hearted film, exuding warmth and sweetness even as hostility threatened to take hold. Not so for Soft in the Head.
Silver’s latest finds the sweetness of its predecessor curdled, its warmth set ablaze, the result altogether possessed of a fiercer sensibility. Silver has gravitated away from Cassavetes, it seems, and toward the influence of another Hollywood maverick: Samuel Fuller, whose idiosyncratic riff on the hooker with the heart of gold, The Naked Kiss, Silver cites in Head‘s hair-pulling opening scene.
This change in temperament proves a considerable maturation. The bewigged heroine in this case is Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría, who delivers a performance of extraordinary intensity), introduced drunk and harried and rarely glimpsed, throughout the 72 minutes to come, in any other state. Noisily ejected from her boyfriend’s New York apartment one evening in a fit of sobbing and rage, Natalia hits the streets, penniless in a cocktail dress, before blithely disrupting the otherwise quiet Shabbat dinner of a friend.
From here we’re whisked through a sort of urban picaresque: Natalia is soon taken in by the denizens of a makeshift homeless shelter, a refuge for the down-and-out that Silver renders with a novelist’s eye for detail. The turbulence that follows is surprising, challenging, and never less than thrilling.