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It’s worth nothing that Nathan Silver‘s damn-near-perfect fourth feature, Uncertain Terms, was originally titled Simian, a word that refers directly to man’s place amongst the animals, if not exactly beasts. And the director’s first three features have all danced on the porous border between the socially acceptable veneer that human beings work to keep up, and the wild, conflicting inner self, the thing that refuses reason and is ruled purely by untraceable desire. In his excellent last film, Soft in the Head, a metropolitan-based home for troubled souls, run by a lonely, good-hearted man, is riled into dramatic fury with the introduction of a young woman, who becomes the obsession of a young man of the Jewish Orthodoxy. Both the social system of the home itself, and of the young man’s church, powered by fervent belief, are thrown into complete chaos by an bold, if not exactly wise woman.
The concept of independently-run rehabilitation is central to Silver’s oeuvre; his upcoming fifth film, Stinking Heaven, is based in a home for drug addicts, both recovering and otherwise. In Uncertain Terms, the setting is a home in upstate New York where pregnant teenagers with unsteady home lives stay, run by Carla (Cindy Silver, the director’s mother), with attentive care and even GED prep for a relatively cheap fee. The procedures and loose rules of the home are conveyed naturally through Carla’s discussions with the girls who are staying in her sizable house, but the pull of the drama comes from the interactions between the girls and Robbie (David Dahlbom), Carla’s soon-to-be divorced nephew whose picking up some maintenance and carpentry work from his aunt. The tortured lust and desperate affections of the women begin to combust when he strikes up a close friendship with Nina (India Menuez), a crimson-haired mother-to-be with a flakey, immature baby daddy named Chase (Casey Drogin), which tumbles into a kind of romance plagued by miscommunication, doubt, and indecision.
Working with DP Cody Stokes, a close collaborator on Soft in the Head, Silver achieves a rare kind of intimacy between the seven or eight characters in the home, through tenuous close-ups and unstable yet focused medium shots. The managerial decisions, physical upkeep, and day-to-day happenings in the house come up, but even more important to Silver is the psychological undercurrents of the interpersonal bickering and analysis of how each one of the young women ended up there. The exchanges between Menuez and Dahlbom are the center of the film, but there are revelatory moments of distinct personality, both spoken and unspoken, summoned by Tallie Medel (The Unspeakable Act), Gina Piersanti (It Felt Like Love), and Hannah Gross (I Used to Be Darker) as the other girls in the home. In one of a few outdoor chats between the young women, without the directorial influence of Carla, Medel frankly discusses the fact that her baby could have been fathered by three different men, and the inability she had to see the possibility of a regretful outcome, with an unforced, candid tone that beautifully echoes the visual rhythms that Silver and Stokes, who also edited the film.
It’s that same ability to not see the forest for the trees when true, unrestrained desire hits someone that Silver is ultimately most fascinated by in Uncertain Terms, and its where the contentious relationship between Nina and Robbie finds its core. As is cleverly revealed, Robbie is not just at Carla’s house to be a good nephew, but rather to run away from his wife’s act of infidelity, a situation that he is staunchly unresponsive and hostile about. He doesn’t understand the hunger that led his wife astray, so he assumes she did it knowing full well she was violating their bond and making him a cuckold. That is, until he starts finding himself attracted to Nina, to the point where he begins considering becoming the father to her child when Chase becomes increasingly unsteady. Silver composes these emotional collisions of guilt, self-righteousness, and frustration soberly but not without the sense that each shot was knowingly, instinctually framed by Silver and Stokes. And in this the film aesthetically reflects the warring elements of control and wild yearning in each one of Silver’s characters, which are stirred into fiery, breathless life by the untraceable gusts of kindred empathy and physical lust.
Uncertain Terms is currently available to stream on Netflix.