Director Nathan Silver is probably sick of getting confused on Google with the stat-crunching analyst Nate Silver. But both have the numbers going for them: The filmmaking Silver has directed five no-budget features since 2009, all of them promising-to-inspired, none of them the kind of calling-card indie flick that seems to exist only to help secure financing for the next project. That’s a major-league average.
Silver slices life with a sharpness and acuity rare in filmmakers much older than him, and Uncertain Terms — his latest, although another, Stinking Heaven, is already making the festival rounds — is his strongest yet. Like Soft in the Head and Exit Elena, it concerns young people trying to keep their cool in confined spaces and lives: This time the lead, Robbie (David Dahlbom), is a hair north of 30 — and has a hairline just short of true youth. But, as he’s facing a divorce, this bearded Brooklynite’s passions are stirred by one of the teen residents in the home for girls where he is temporarily serving as a handyman. The home is run by Robbie’s aunt Carla, a study in stoic pragmatism, wonderfully played by the director’s mother, Cindy Silver. Carla houses pregnant mothers-to-be, providing room, board, homeschooling, and clear-eyed advice of the sort skimmed over in high school health classes: She tells them that they may not have a period for a while after giving birth, but that doesn’t mean they can have sex without risk of another pregnancy.
Carla also offers them, in the form of her nephew, drama, temptation, and a kind of dopey hope. Robbie might be fleeing a marriage that is collapsing and an adult life that hasn’t quite worked out, but to several of the teens he offers what the fathers of their children cannot: a seeming maturity, a willingness to listen, his mere presence. Nina (India Menuez), a ginger slip of a girl just starting to show, succeeds in catching Robbie’s eye — and in their early scenes of connection, all sweetly underplayed, the film honors our sense of the wrongheadedness of their surprise feelings and desires but also the crushed-out promise that they rouse in each other. Nothing between these two can end well, especially with Nina’s hotheaded kind-of/sort-of boyfriend (Casey Drogin, all teen swagger) skulking about, but it’s hard not to be stirred by the way the air between Nina and Robbie seems to tingle — the way something seems to bloom in their eyes.
The film is brisk, brief, well acted, smartly crafted, and shrewdly judged. Silver stages strong, fascinating scenes of the residents throwing meager birthday parties, or bristling at their schoolwork; these are countered by a pair of knockout confrontations between angry, territorial men, neither absolutely certain the fight they’re moving toward is worth it. The characters come in for their humiliations and disappointments, of course, and there’s no sense that, in the end, everything’s going to be significantly better for them. But Silver’s outlook isn’t bleak or punishing: Again and again, film after film, he does nothing less than put on the screen life as it’s lived. Here, his people hurt some, connect some, and then move on — and, as in the real world, what matters most is connecting at all.