by Ela Bittencourt

Uncertain Terms
Dir. Nathan Silver, U.S., Breaking Glass Pictures

American director Nathan Silver’s films are thorny postmodern love poems. His second feature, Exit Elena (2012), about a young woman who is hired by a family as a live-in nurse and experiences her first romantic pangs, and his third, Soft in the Head (2013), about a troubled outsider who flirts with alcoholism and self-destruction, offered glimpses of impossible infatuations, set against backgrounds of familial rifts. His latest film and fourth feature, Uncertain Terms, is perhaps Silver’s most mature depiction of imperfect love to date. As the title suggests, it focuses on relationships whose terms are in constant flux, setting its characters off on identity quests.

The film centers on a few young girls staying at a home for pregnant, unwed teenagers. The girls participate in lessons in natal care, while taking reprieves from their daily troubles (self-absorbed or intolerant parents, problematic boyfriends), and, in some cases, prepare to pass the GED exam. In an early scene, a young mom-to-be gazes uncertainly at baby dolls piled in the living room, while her mother signs over the release for her to stay at the home. The dolls will be used as props for changing diapers and the like, but here they signal the new resident’s rocky passage to womanhood. In most cases, the young ages of the girls and their compact body frames make their protruding bellies appear as props, enhancing our sense of pregnancy as otherness. Perhaps to combat this, Silver roots the narrative in minute, procedural details, showing the girls filling out insurance forms; listening as the home’s authority figure, Carla Gottlieb (Cindy Silver), enumerates rules and costs; and partaking in sessions that outline the physiological side of their metamorphoses.

Carla is played by Silver’s mother, Cindy Silver, a nonprofessional actor who also starred in Exit Elena. In Uncertain Terms, Silver conflates his mother’s on- and off-screen personas: since his mother stayed at a home for pregnant girls as a teenager, Silver incorporates some of her past into the fictional story, such as the scene in which she shows off a family picture album. Cindy Silver adds a welcome gravitas; she’s a nurturing, albeit nosy and bossy, mother figure. Her onscreen interactions with Silver, who cameos as Carla’s hapless son, Lenny, are inflected with the nagging tones we might imagine her to have in real life. Her presence deepens the homespun atmosphere of Silver’s intimate, low-budget production, and infuses it with the casual warmth, as well as humor, we expect from home videos.

The main plot revolves around Nina (India Menuez), a pregnant teenager who vacillates between her volatile, hapless boyfriend, Chase (Casey Drogin), and Robbie (David Dalhbom), who comes to stay at the house to help out with repairs. The on-again-off-again tribulations of Chase and Nina are among the most finely drawn in the film, for Silver (with his cowriters Chloe Domont and Cody Stokes) and Drogin manage to portray Chase as a reckless, hotheaded kid with no purpose, while also showing off a valiant side, through his devotion to Nina. Robbie’s presence almost immediately drives a wedge between Nina and Chase. Robbie is the more mature, responsible partner, and so makes it hard for Nina to choose betweenthe deeply flawed lover she knows and the highly idealized one she has only just met. Dalhbom, whose previous credits include working as cinematographer on Silver’s Exit Elena and on his 2008 short Anecdote, gives Robbie enough boyish, self-deprecating charm for his romancing of Nina to feel plausible.

Complicating matters is the revelation that Robbie has run out on his unfaithful wife, Mona (Caitlin Mehner). This deepens our understanding of Robbie’s infatuation with the angelic-looking Nina: she’s a fresh start, taking him back to his younger self. From flirting while sharing a cigarette on the porch, to teaching Nina how to drive at night, Robbie is clearly reliving his high-school days. In this sense, Uncertain Terms is about our inherent need for hope, however fleeting or improbable it may be, in order to get through hard times. Increasingly throughout the story, we get a sense that although Nina and Robbie may be play-acting, trying out new roles without fully believing in them, their fantasies nevertheless help them gain the necessary distance from all the emotional turmoil that threatens to engulf them.

Through the intricate machinations of Jean (Tallie Medel), a jealous tomboy who takes a fancy to Robbie and fabricates a sexual encounter between them, the first seed of tension between Nina and Robbie is sown. There are other intrusions: Nina repeatedly calls Chase, and Robbie is pursued by Mona, who tries to persuade him to return home. The buzzing of phones becomes an integral part of the film’s soundtrack, mingled with the natural sounds of the forest. Thus, as pressures build, we are reminded that the sheltering environment is not immune to outside pressures. The girls’ discussions, which bear a mark of confessional group therapy, are filled with not just stories of conception but also of failed relationships.

One of Silver’s talents lies in his confident work with actors. Uncertain Terms’ ensemble cast is impressive: one might remember Medel from her starring role as Jackie Kimball in Dan Sallitt’s sibling-incest drama, The Unspeakable Act; Hannah Gross, who plays Cammy, starred in Matthew Porterfield’s fiction feature about divorce, I Used to Be Darker; and Gina Piersanti, playing Charlie, was unforgettable in Eliza Hittman’s Brooklyn-set tale of teenage angst It Felt Like Love. Although none of these actors appeared in Silver’s previous films, one can sense in Uncertain Terms the trust that Silver places in them, their words flowing seamlessly from scripted dialogue to improvisation. Only occasionally does a faint didactic note slip in, such as in Nina’s indirect appeal for empathy—when she comments, “It gets really easy for everyone to just judge us and think that we’re, like, screw-ups, you know,” the line seems to be aimed not so much at her friends as the audience. Yet naturalness prevails, and most of the scenes captured by Stokes, who doubles as cinematographer, have a free-flowing confessional tone, as if we’re eavesdropping on the characters’ private thoughts, but without necessarily giving away the subtext.

At times, such as the scene when Robbie is being interrogated about his marriage, the intimacy produced by the camera becomes claustrophobic, reminding us that the retreat is often the equivalent of an emotional and hormonal pressure cooker. And even though Silver’s films tend to be conversational, in Uncertain Terms, he lets the silences build up, as in the girls’ walks, during which the camera follows them closely. Other times, crucial information, such as Jean’s growing jealousy over Robbie and her animosity toward Nina, are communicated through locked glances, and in half whispers. Only during the escalating fights between Nina and Chase, or after the sudden appearance of Robbie’s wife, do the exchanges quickly reach emotional crescendos, and thus prove quite wrenching. In between are Jean’s forlorn, hungering looks and blatant sexual ploys, which, along with Silver’s own brief appearances as a carefree, blunt conversationalist, provide some of the film’s comic relief.

Uncertain Terms is filled with richly colored, soft-focus imagery, conveying the lushness of the forest where the house (which belongs to Silver’s parents in real life) is located. The overall softness of the palette suggests that Silver has sympathy for even his most flawed characters: there are no real villains here, even Jean is partly redeemed by her sheer inaptitude, and Mona’s cheating is offset by her desperation to reconnect with Robbie. There are also no victims, and the pregnancies, including those that result from painful experiences, are less a source of anguish than of guarded hopefulness. Perhaps even more complex is Silver’s vision of marriage. While most girls at the home, like Nina, seem rather sheepish about the idea, feeling less prepared for sustaining relationships with men than they are for motherhood, Robbie’s marriage, at first seemingly beyond rescue, survives. A delicate balance is being restored throughout.

Silver does not dwell upon the reasons that may finally sway Robbie to give up his quest of Nina, keeping the resolution open-ended and leaving us to guess whether Robbie’s actions thus far have been motivated by his genuine desire to move on, or by his wounded but persistent love for Mona. The culminating sequence starts at a high pitch, during Nina’s birthday party, and ends in near silence, with nothing remaining of the festive mood except for a few aimlessly floating party balloons. It is a precipitous drop, one that mirrors the characters’ own arcs. For within this feverish, quickly paced finale, Robbie seemingly reconciles himself to returning to Mona, who suddenly appears at the party, and Nina unequivocally comes back to Chase, even if only out of anger over Mona’s presence. It could be that here Silver affirms that marriage, while mostly abstract to the young girls, is nevertheless a solid force, against which Nina’s charms ultimately stand no chance. Silver has been preparing us for this sobering coda all along, hinting that love hinges upon fantasy as much as reality, and that, in real life, fantasies are rather quick to fade.