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EIFF 2014: ‘Uncertain Terms’ is an intimate portrayal of love and human weakness

Uncertain Terms Film Poster

Uncertain Terms
Written by Chloe Domont, Nathan Silver and Cody Stokes
Directed by Nathan Silver
USA, 2014

Director Nathan Silver is a rare talent in American indie cinema, capable of drawing great depth from seemingly innocuous situations. His films focus on displacement and youthful uncertainty, tapping as authentically as anyone else into some of his generations most immediate concerns. Though there’s noticeably more at stake than in his breakthrough gem Exit Elena, Silver’s fourth feature is a similarly quiet, intimate portrayal of everyday life.

Uncertain Terms is set in a home for pregnant teenagers, designed to protect them from the judgement and overwhelming pressure of society and family. Run by Carla (Cindy Silver), who went through a difficult time when she fell pregnant at a young age, the home is a frank, liberal environment focused on commonality and support. The girls are from varied backgrounds and have contrasting personalities but all are there because their families are unable or unwilling to help them cope with their circumstances. Situated in the tranquil New York State woodland, the home provides a welcome refuge from the outside world, even if the atmosphere sometimes gets tense and hormonal.

Much of this tension stems from the arrival of Carla’s nephew Robbie (David Dahlbom), whose marriage is on the verge of collapse. He desperately needs space to clear his head but it’s immediately obvious that he’s come to the worst possible place. As a good looking older man, he attracts attention from several members of the group, especially the impetuous Jean (Tallie Medel), who purposely tries to seduce him. However, it’s when he strikes up a friendship with the coy, enigmatic Nina (India Menuez) that he begins to really unsettle the balance.

Uncertain Terms Film Review David Dahlbom

Even though he’s drawn to her attitude and intelligence, much of his attraction results from his own situation. His wife’s betrayal and immaturity are making him think seriously about whether she’s the person he wants to spend his life with and he projects these feelings onto Nina’s boyfriend Chase (Casey Drogin). While Chase is far from a model partner, quitting several jobs and failing to answer Nina’s calls, he has at least stuck by her through her pregnancy and visits her on a regular basis. Robbie’s input is rarely asked for and, even when it is, he takes it too far. With no strong ties to the house, he has little respect for its rules and fails to grasp its implicit social codes. He’s too personal and honest, quick to get involved in private situations, which he lacks the right and ability to deal with. He’s as emotionally vulnerable as any of the girls, even as he considers himself to be above them, and this begins to affect his judgement.

Primarily through Silver’s trademark semi-improvised exchanges, the film sustains its sincerity and innocence from beginning to end. It’s apparent that the girls have little idea how they’re going to cope with motherhood but they’re nevertheless portrayed with hope and potential. When Charlie (Gina Piersanti) says she wants to call her baby Jack, Nina says it’s a great name, ‘even for a girl’. She won’t have that naiveté for very long but it’s something to be cherished rather than stripped away. At Jean’s birthday party, the girls dance to Khia’s ‘My Neck, My Back’, their pregnant bodies moving unselfconsciously to the music. Having only recently started experimenting with their bodies and come to terms with their free sexuality, they don’t yet realise there’s a part of that they’ll have to let go. It’s an inspired scene, achieving so much with virtually nothing. The girls have earned this sheltered time, or, if they haven’t yet, they will with what’s in store.

Uncertain Terms India Menuez

At heart, Uncertain Terms is about failure in love and how difficult it is to sustain relationships. In one scene, Robbie explains to Nina that she’s at the hardest age, where it’s so easy to fall in love but impossible to know how you want your life to turn out. Decisions really count but you don’t have the experience to make them. Responsibility and maturity are crucial; you need to find the right person, deal with situations properly and stay composed when things go wrong. Ask yourself honestly, is this the right situation, the right relationship, the right time? And then work out the repercussions of your answers. Silver’s film deftly confronts these ideas, showing sensitivity to human weakness and limitless compassion for failure.

Rob Dickie

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