Exit Elena – Nathan Silver and the perpetual anxiety. (Film Review)
“The only way anything gets done is if I do it. Like with the cat. We needed a cat, so I brought home a cat. We needed a nurse… and now there’s Elena.” Cindy from Exit Elena.
Does it take an outsider to reveal how nutty our families really are? Characteristic of his passion for chaotic narratives that combine several stories in one, Nathan Silvers second film, Exit Elena is about a family that collect people, misfits or otherwise, into their fold ostensibly for their own sublimated purpose, although if you asked them, they would say it is always an act of generosity of their part. This is wonderful, fertile territory for a film maker as dark as Nathan Silver, who has a talent for drawing superb performances out of professional and non professional actors via scant scripts and invitations to improvise in front of the camera, Nathan Silver always working through the eye, separating the direction from the action specifically, so that the audience acts as invisible witness to the most lively scenes of family (dis)function. This is clever use of a minimal budget, Exit Elena was filmed on a consumer retail hand-held camera, so when Silver films this family, at times we get the feeling we are watching home movies, without the cheezy hand waving. But it is in the editing that Silver really shines, his passion for chaos coming together in a sequence of events that build character as well as propel a surprisingly linear narrative despite his on set improvisation and his seeming addiction to awkward circumstances that promote anxiety and social discomfort.
Exit Elena begins with a young woman, Elena (Kia Davis) passing her prac as the final stage in achieving her aged care nursing certificate. She starts with an agency and is immediately placed, only to find when she arrives, that the woman who hired her did not inform her husband that the nurse for his mother was to live in. Elena is forced to witness an animated argument, that she will find is the standard mode of communication between this older couple, about her right to stay in the house with them. She is then shuffled off to a spare room, where she left to make her way as caregiver living in very close proximity to this strange new families life. These early days, before we become enthralled in the melodrama of the Jim and Cindy’s life are some of the funniest in the film, Silvers dead pan camera a perfect observation for the abstract absurdities of the situation. Elena’s first shower dampens a post-it note precariously stuck to one of the towels on the rack that reads “Elena’s Towel”. In another scene, Elena in the privacy of her room, draws an image of her hostess Cindy endlessly offering her Seltzer even as the woman bangs on the door and offers seltzer again. But the real comic moments occur around the very talented Cindy Silver as Cindy, Nathan’s mother on and off-screen, whose comic timing and wit come through with perfection as she bosses Elena around (as she does everyone) in the most good-natured way, only to dump them unceremoniously when she’s done. When Florence (Gert O’Connell) Elena’s charge falls and needs to go to hospital, it is Cindy who coerced Elena to remain at the house, increasing the awkwardness as each day goes by with less and less for Elena to do but feed the unspoken question, what is she doing there?
Kia Davis’ performance is particularly thrilling and Silver holds the camera very close to her face, so that we watch and feel her pain even as she gulps it down. She is alone in a world that is intense and claustrophobic, burrowing in and down on her, and yet without the rights or entitlements familial blood provides. Her stay is conditional, she knows this, but working out what the conditions are is not as easy with a family that prides itself on its charitable extended warmth that doubles as a thinly veiled desire to control. Cindy collects relationships; the children in frames dotted around the house, Elena discovers, are not family, not long time acquaintances, but a family she got to know that Cindy imposes herself on repeatedly, because she obviously wants grandchildren. But if she keeps buying the gifts, where’s the harm, right?
The sinister underbelly of family life, the overwhelming claustrophobia of family relations is balanced perfectly against Elena’s nowhere-ness and her very post modern rambling through life. Somehow, through the anxiety of many awkward dinner conversations and inappropriate walks ins, Elena finds a fondness for the family, but even more than this, finds a connection to herself as she sits with the perpetual anxiety of close proximity living with strangers. Nathan Silver worked with improvisation with a cast that he describes as “unable to leave” in that he chose his mother, his girlfriend at the time, his mate behind the camera and the old lady next door as his cast, rather like the way Cindy operates in the film, using the ties outside of the film to force the film making to comply with his method. As I said in the opening paragraph, it is in the editing that Silver really excelled, perfectly positioning what felt good at the time into a structure that is delicately nuanced and yet starkly transparent together.
Exit Elena is a very funny, very pleasurable pice of classic new york indie film making. If you get a chance to see it, grab it.