"The Quiet": Dysfunctional family has the blues

While watching "The Quiet," I kept thinking of that "Saturday Night Live" dinner-table sketch in which guest star Sarah Michelle Gellar played a sullen teenager who snaps at her oblivious parents at the slightest provocation, hating them for merely being alive. It was perfectly played for laughs, with Gellar bursting every pregnant silence with another salvo of sarcasm.

"The Quiet" could have been similarly amusing with its own dysfunctional family, but this is one of those dreadfully dour movies filmed in oppressive tones of cool blue, as if the entire world had suddenly come down with the doldrums. Bordering on camp and loaded with lesbian undertones, this wretched drama plays like a high-school horror flick that trades monsters and mayhem for an overdose of force-fed cruelty.

Movie review 1.5 stars

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"The Quiet," with Elisha Cuthbert, Camilla Belle, Edie Falco, Martin Donovan. Directed by Jamie Babbitt, from a screenplay by Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft. 92 minutes. Rated R for language, disturbing sexual content, brief violence and nudity. Several theaters.

Having previously directed the 1999 comedy "But I'm a Cheerleader," you'd think prolific TV director Jamie Babbitt might try some pitch-black comedy that cuts while it tickles. Instead, Babbitt (whose next film is a send-up of radical feminism) seems off-course here, crafting an estrogen-fueled oddity that's just intriguing enough to be studied in feminist film classes.

Girl power arrives (with Cat Power on the soundtrack) when newly orphaned deaf-mute Dot (Camilla Belle, from the recent remake of "When a Stranger Calls") moves in with the Deer family. Daughter Nina (Elisha Cuthbert) subjects Dot to the same spiteful wrath she hurls at her pill-popping mom Olivia (Edie Falco, baring all as a neglected zombie wife) and dad Paul (Dot's adoptive godfather, played by Martin Donovan), whose simmering creepiness includes late-night visits to Nina's bedroom.

Dot's apparent hearing and speech impairment leads everyone (including a would-be boyfriend) to confide their secrets in her. As tensions escalate and Dot's own secrets are revealed, "The Quiet" veers toward a female alliance that threatens to give the film its only shred of curious credibility.

Surprisingly well-acted for a film of such luridly aimless purpose, "The Quiet" occasionally hints at the better film it might have been, if it weren't so desperate for profundity it cannot hope to muster. If Babbitt had approached the material as exploitation comedy, her film's guilty-pleasure potential would've increased exponentially.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net