It would take a fork and knife to cut through the thick atmosphere souped up by The Quiet, an American independent film that approaches a serious subject with a portentousness that it hopes will be confused for art. Abandoning the garish hyperactivity of her previous effort, the camp comedy But I'm A Cheerleader, director Jamie Babbit here employs a chilly ambience that makes the film seem weightier and more substantial than it turns out to be. Much of the action takes place inside a two-story suburban home that's been aestheticized within an inch of its life: Sterile and unfinished, with half the rooms cleared out for long-delayed renovations, it's presented as a sort of wounded psychic space, but it amounts to just another example of Babbit pushing too hard for effect. At times, the mood of high seriousness comes close to drifting into unintentional comedy.
It doesn't help that the two main characters are an inscrutable deaf girl and an anxious cheerleader played by Elisha Cuthbert, who's perhaps best known as the pouty damsel-in-distress (occasionally due to mountain-lion attacks) on TV's 24. When deaf teenager Camilla Belle is orphaned, Cuthbert's family takes her in, bringing her into a home fraught with tension and one whopping secret: Cuthbert's incestuous relationship with her father (Martin Donovan), which has been sending her into paroxysms of anger and shame. Though clearly affected by this deception, Cuthbert's mother (Edie Falco) is so doped up on prescription painkillers that she remains oblivious on those nights when her husband slips into their daughter's bedroom. Needless to say, Belle's presence alters the dynamic decisively.
The few effective scenes in The Quiet suggest that the film might have worked as a kinked-up Hitchcockian thriller rather than the drab, serious drama it turns out to be. Belle's deafness, along with her general passivity, invites people to make her a sounding board for all their darkest secrets, knowing that she'll hear them out without actually hearing them. Though the film develops a modicum of tension, Babbit spends most of her energy trotting out the expected indie clichés about suburban dysfunction and decay, all at a studied pace that approaches rigor mortis. And if you don't see the twist coming from several miles off, time to change your prescription.