About fifteen minutes into Soft & Quiet (2022), written and directed by Beth de Araújo, we get the full, haunting picture of who we are dealing with. Peppy blonde schoolteacher Emily (Stefanie Estes) pulls the aluminum foil off of her all-American cherry pie to reveal a swastika etched in its middle. In the upper floor of a church in some nondescript, forested small town, a group of women are participating in the first official meeting of the Daughters for Aryan Unity.
As the small group of white women power through sweets — grocery store sugar cookies and doughnuts and sips of coffee — they air out their complaints about the world these days. Jobs being stolen from them, money being kept from them, even their men at risk of being pulled away from them by women of color.
They daydream about returning to America as it was with proper, white, Christian values, ideally being enforced by the white brothers, husbands, and sons that these women are so proud to know and care for. “For our men’s strength and resources,” Emily grins, hands sweeping over her tiny body, her long hair, her mediocrely applied make-up, her whiteness, “they get this.” Their racist spewing is interrupted by giggles, by the occasional snide comment, by mentions of the babies they are raising or hoping to raise. These women are sensitive, easily offended. They cry often to punctuate a point.
As the group shifts from the meeting to murmurs of a wine night at Emily’s, two sisters, Anne (Melissa Paulo) and Lily (Cissy Ly), who are both women of color, enter Kim’s (Dana Millican) corner store for a bottle of wine. After a brief verbal altercation, the group has official targets for the racist rage they have been stoking in each other for the past afternoon.
Anne is their perceived loss as white women personified — a woman of color who has some money and a home that Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta) doesn’t, and who “took” Emily’s brother from her after reporting his rape and having him imprisoned. To these women, she is everything to be hated about the country in its current state.
If the violence already spewed hasn’t made you sick enough already, the final half of Soft & Quiet will handle it. A plan to break into Anne’s home to steal or vandalize devolves into the group of white women enacting a sadistic collection of horrors, following in the footsteps of home invasion torture films along the lines of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Only this time, while the group enacts a full-fledged hate crime, they all weep and screech in the process, as if shocked and appalled by the circumstance and violence they themselves are actively creating.
A bold debut feature from writer-director de Araújo, Soft & Quiet is insistent and endless, playing out almost in real time and tracking the events through unsteady, shaky, spinning handheld shots. The horrific actions the white women perform and encourage in one another occur either directly onscreen or only inches off of it, a barrage of cruelty made all the more stunningly grotesque by the women’s seemingly total belief that this is mostly out of their control, that it was simply a goof gone wrong despite their constant active participation.
Soft & Quiet takes us from Point A — the fucked up, racist things white women may murmur at a wine night — to Point B — undeniable, definitive acts of violence — in less than an hour and a half. These women told us from the start who they were, with their cherry pie and their casual slurs, with their insistence on returning to traditional values of oppression and power. Their words and their actions are directly connected, and actively enacted. The film refuses to let you parse them apart, to place these practices of violence on a spectrum. This is what is born of white supremacy. This is what is born of our narratives around white womanhood, fragility, and victimhood.
Soft & Quiet forces the violence that lays behind the history of white women enacting white supremacy through gender-specific means to the forefront, shining a nauseating but realistic light on the potential for white femininity to be both weaponized and used to cover extensive and appalling violence.