Exit Elena: Edinburgh Film Review

Nicely-handled U.S. indie featuring some strong improv performances could find a life beyond the festival circuit.

Nathan Silver's second feature follows a newly-qualified nursing assistant navigating life in suburban New York.

EDINBURGH -- Finding room among an awkwardly dysfunctional family proves preferable to having no family at all in Exit Elena, a nicely prickly second feature from director/producer Nathan Silver -- who also co-writes and appears in a key supporting role. Built around a precisely-pitched performance by newcomer Kia Davis in the title role, this keenly-observed affair is a solid mid-range U.S. indie which will score further festival berths following a well-received Edinburgh debut. The kind of modestly-scaled calling-card that can attract and benefit from blogosphere advocacy, it looks a viable candidate for carefully handled theatrical and VOD distribution Stateside.

Set over a few weeks from late July to early September -- the days specified by on-screen captions, the action divided into three chapters -- in an unspecified locale that looks like suburban New York, Exit Elena is primarily a character-study of newly-qualified nursing-assistant Elena. A mousy, seemingly rootless young woman of somewhat fragile confidence, Elena's frizzy mop of blondish hair hides a sensitive, cautiously sunny disposition. Her first employment proves the proverbial baptism of fire, as her agency rather ill-advisedly places her with the middle-class Akermans: querulous middle-aged Cindy (the director's own mother, Cindy Silver), her easy-going, henpecked husband Jim (Jim Chiros) and Jim's graceful but infirm mother Florence (Gert O'Connell).

Self-effacing Elena struggles to adapt to Cindy's fussy-budget style of household management, her hyperactive personality and ham-fisted attempts to draw the girl out of her shell -- there's one particularly traumatic visit to a Zumba class -- and is only just finding her feet when further disruptions arrive in the form the Akerman's grown-up but emotionally unstable son Nathan (director Silver).

Gamely casting himself in the most gratingly unsympathetic of roles, Silver -- a production assistant on Julia Loktev's politically-charged urban suspenser Day Night Day Night (2006), and whose 2009 debut The Blind made few waves -- isn't exactly breaking new ground for US independent cinema here. Indeed, this claustrophobically discomfiting but quizzically comic study of social unease and embarrassment essentially combines elements from Chris Brown's under-appreciated Fanny Annie and Danny (2009) and Mark Jackson's current festival-circuit hit Without. The trickiness of the distinctions between paid 'servants' and family-members is also one of the subjects of Brit writer-director Joanna Hogg's superb Archipelago.

But Silver and co-writer Davis deserves credit for developing their own story in some subtle and unexpected ways, skirting both melodrama and caricature and ensuring that even the apparently shrewish Cindy and the insufferable Nathan are three-dimensional characterizations. Performances are strong across the board in this tight ensembler, with dialogue that's largely improvised and frequently overlapping (but always audible). Davis is particularly impressive in the most demanding role, while Silver finds fresh variations on the stereotypical neurotic mom and non-pro O'Connell -- a longtime neighbor of the Silver family -- makes a rather lovely, decidedly belated screen debut as the stoically bemused Florence.

Though evidently made with minimal means, Exit Elena is assembled with unobtrusive technical competence. The three editors -- including Davis and director Silver -- keep things moving at a vigorous clip for the whole of the brisk running-time and David Dahlbom's video camera(s?) capture images in squarish Academy ratio that prove a cozy fit for Elena's boxed-in little world.

Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival
Production company: Konec
Cast: Kia Davis, Cindy Silver, Jim Chiros, Gert O'Connell, Nathan Silver
Director / Producer: Nathan Silver
Screenwriters: Nathan Silver, Kia Davis
Executive producer: Harvey L Silver
Director of photography: David Dahlbom
Editors: Nathan Silver, Kia Davis, Cody Stokes
Sales Agent: Konec, Brooklyn
No rating, 71 minutes.