We begin with the eponymous Elena (Kia Davis), arriving just in time to witness the culmination of her studies in the form of a nursing license. She quickly snags a gig at the Akerman house taking care of the elderly Florence (Gert O’Connell), with the added weight of dealing with middle-aged parents Cindy (Cindy Silver, and yes, the director's true matriarch) and Jim (Jim Chiros). Cindy, whose incessant nagging and pestering makes up a great deal of the film's humor, treats Elena less like a helper and more like a surrogate daughter, from encouraging her to chat with a neighbor while taking care of Florence to delivering a nightly monologue about the girl's air conditioning usage and bedroom door functionality before bed. Resistance is futile, though, and eventually the titular protagonist fits snugly into the Akerman clan -- and with a subtle, gradual change, that's something she becomes comfortable with -- until the there's a wrench in the gears, that being the homecoming of only child Nathan (brought to life by the director). Cleverly referred to and built up early in the film like some sort of human manifestation of impending doom, Nathan's manic behavior and ability to push buttons (not to mention romantic advances) throw off Elena, and things only get worse when Florence, Elena's sole legitimate reason for dwelling in the home, is put into a hospital indefinitely.
The cinematography is simple and all done from what seems to be a consumer-grade HD camera, but the deliberate movement evokes Hou Hsiao-hsien with its floating single-takes as opposed to the hand-held documentary feel generally associated with movies that use off-the-shelf camcorders. Its style (along with the performances) gives it an intimate, home-video feel, and the way Silver captures the Akerman coop and the small town surrounding it incites a nostalgic feel, one that refuses to dissipate even when the scenes hit cover-your-eyes levels of discomfort. Despite capturing the environments so well, the tight framing also gives off a feeling of imprisonment: Elena is locked in, either by will or circumstances. It works on a micro level, scene-by-scene, but also on a macro level, a consideration rarely taken into account -- and it's this dedication that makes the film's liberating finale much more effective.
After the soft-spoken Florence leaves, Elena is in limbo: while Cindy tells her that she can live with the family regardless, a subsequent breath reveals that they can no longer afford to house her now that her job is moot. But what a great daughter-in-law she'd make, which is a sentiment held by more than one person in the Akerman dwelling and the uneasy direction 'Exit' takes on its way to the finish line. A layered and hilarious look at the dynamics of family, relationships, and need, "Exit Elena" will amplify your anticipation for the next holiday get-together, then quickly remind you why family visits are so sporadic. [B+]