'The Quiet'

"The Quiet" is something of a film with a split-personality disorder. It never quite settles on whether it's a "Mean Girls" burlesque of teen life, an "American Beauty"-style bad-things-in-the-suburbs drama, or a wayward horror film. And it certainly never reconciles itself to successfully pulling off a hybrid of the three.

A recently orphaned teenage girl (Camilla Belle) who does not hear or speak is taken in by a couple (Edie Falco and Martin Donovan), much to the consternation of their cheerleader daughter (Elisha Cuthbert). From there secrets are revealed, unsteady alliances are formed and the house undergoing renovations becomes some kind of cornball metaphor.

Directed by Jamie Babbit from a script by Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft, the film was made as part of a program to give students at the University of Texas at Austin hands-on experience in making a feature film. One can only hope they did not receive passing grades. For reasons perhaps known only to cinematographer M. David Mullen, many interior scenes are shot through a hazy diffusion of smoke, giving the film the unnecessary feel of something sleazy on late-night cable.

Both Cuthbert and Belle are nimble, surprising actresses, and they manage to navigate the film's increasingly ridiculous twists with their dignity intact. They form curious negative reflections of one another, batting dominion of the story back and forth, and their dynamic is the film's only saving grace.

Late in the film, the song "Maybe Not" by indie chanteuse Cat Power comes on as a slow-jam at a school dance. The softly churning, gothic-tinged creepiness of the song shifts what's missing from "The Quiet" into pained relief — what should be a sustained mood piece instead flops around uncertainly, trading in understated strength for noisy diversion.

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