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'Uncertain Terms': LAFF Review

Uncertain Terms LAFF Still - H 2014
LAFF

The Bottom Line

Domestic drama gets pushed to fervid heights in this low-budget feature.

Venue

Los Angeles Film Festival (in competition)

Cast

India Menuez, David Dahlbom, Caitlin Mehner, Tallie Medel, Cindy Silver, Casey Drogin

Director

Nathan Silver

Nathan Silver reteams with some of his regular cast and crew for his fourth film.

Writer-director (and sometimes actor) Nathan Silver has built a growing body of work on the basis of actorly indie dramas turned out in quick succession, including Exit Elena and Soft in the Head. Shifting to mid-state New York for Uncertain Terms, Silver delivers a rather slight film with regard to both topicality and duration, which regardless may attract some positive attention from indie-oriented fests and alternative distribution outlets.  

Thirty-ish Robbie (David Dahlbom) flees New York City and his disintegrating marriage while he gets some downtime visiting his anxiety-prone Aunt Carla (Cindy Silver) in the Hudson Valley region, where she operates a modest private home for pregnant, unmarried teens. Although she takes on only five mostly under-18 girls at a time, they all get small private bedrooms in the house, along with meals, GED lessons and transportation to their medical appointments. Stuck out in the countryside without many distractions, however, the young women quickly develop relationships rich in both camaraderie and competition.

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Carla somewhat unsuccessfully resolves to curtail her innate curiosity and give Robbie the space to sort out his personal issues rather than cross-examining him about his marital situation. Her solution is to assign him a series of maintenance and repair tasks around the house and its woodsy environs that will keep him busy during his stay. As the only man staying at the house, Robbie attracts a fair amount of attention from the young women, who sometimes just want to joke around or have a serious conversation with someone other than Carla or their housemates. Meanwhile Robbie’s wife Mona (Caitlin Mehner) calls him nonstop, sometimes drunk, but he mostly avoids answering or returning her calls, as it emerges that he’s still resolving conflicted feelings over a recent incident of infidelity.

As a slowly escalating rivalry of sorts begins to develop for Robbie’s attention between scrappy, promiscuous Jean (Tallie Medel) and thoughtful, pretty Nina (India Menuez), it doesn’t go unnoticed by Nina’s boyfriend Chase (Casey Drogin), a volatile young man who can’t hold a job and has little motivation to seek employment that would support his growing family. With Chase getting increasingly confrontational, it’s left to Robbie to try to persuade him to moderate his behavior, which does not go unappreciated by Nina, but repeatedly aggravates her boyfriend. At the same time, Mona is demanding that Robbie finally agree to see her and discuss their marital problems, as his mounting emotional issues appear headed for a decisive crisis.

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Silver’s script, co-written with Chloe Domont and cinematographer-editor Cody Stokes, practically begs the question why an experienced caregiver like Carla would invite a seemingly single, somewhat attractive man into a home full of hyper-hormonal teenagers with baby-daddy issues, even if he is related to her. Such a deliberate setup is by design intended to create emotional conflict, so it’s perhaps fortuitous that the plot doesn't become even more contrived than it starts off.

As it turns out, Uncertain Terms is another of Silver’s low-budget features in which “naturalistic” performances are frequently delivered by nonprofessional actors relying on improvisational inspiration. Whether this inexperience improves the quality of their work may be debatable, but in particular, Dahlbom and Cindy Silver -- the director’s mother -- often toss off their lines with little apparent regard for craft. Menuez sometimes seems lost in her role, but fortunately she has plenty of non-dialogue scenes where she can get wistful and day-dreamy. Mehner and Drogin portray fairly one-note provocateurs, strategically introduced to create the requisite conflict.

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Working together with Stokes, Silver’s camera nicely captures the languor of a humid summer leisurely spent in the leafy Hudson Valley -- with some exterior shots, particularly during the girls’ frequent woodsy walks and intimate conversations -- verging on the quietly lyrical. Other scenes shot in low-light situations or after dark are practically impenetrable, a tradeoff that may be more reflective of individual preferences than aesthetic precision.

Production companies: Konec Films, Neighborhood Watch Films, Fordworks Media, H.L. Silver Productions, Capital Letter Films

Cast: India Menuez, David Dahlbom, Caitlin Mehner, Tallie Medel, Gina Piersanti, Hannah Gross, Adinah Dancyger, Cindy Silver, Casey Drogin

Director: Nathan Silver

Screenwriters: Nathan Silver, Chloe Domont, Cody Stokes

Producers: Chloe Domont, Richard Peete, Josh Mandel

Executive producers: Harvey L. Sliver, Jere B. Ford, Phil Pinto

Director of photography: Cody Stokes

Production designer: Grace Sloan

Editor: Cody Stokes

Music: The Blair Brothers

No rating, 74 minutes