Dysfunctional families are the crème de la crème subject for artists: the potential for laughs and intense drama is too attractive, and anyone who's had a proper childhood should have plenty of real-life experiences to mine from. But all this attention given to the rag-tag blood bunches has taken eyes away from the oddly operative ones, those far from normal but somehow able to exist and function as a unit: they get along despite their incompatible behavior, which they don't even seem to recognize. These circles warrant their own examination, and Nathan Silver does just that with his sophomore feature "Exit Elena," an often hilarious and uncomfortable study of the family surrounding one desperately lonely live-in nurse.
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—with a subtle, gradual change, that's something she becomes comfortable with—until 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.
Shot on the cheap with the director's friends and family, 'Exit' is one of the few microbudget films which should be required viewing for undergrads, if only to prove that you can, in fact, make an interesting and incredibly watchable film with the resources you've got. Of course, the movie wasn't just cobbled together in a week and was actually the result of a difficult, intense rehearsal with the cast, and it shows: instead of obliviously endless improvisational dialogue that plagues so many of the movies in this financial bracket, the director carves out plenty of scenes with little dialogue and acutely awkward tension. Though not devoid of babbling, all jabber is reserved as a character trait for those who would perpetually run their mouths (such as Nathan or Cindy), while the rest wait patiently, crossing their fingers for the end to come. So much of their performances feels authentic, and, though a good deal of it is likely an amplification of their real personalities and relationships, it's not a simple task to both utilize these moving parts and, at the same time, keep them from spiraling out of control.
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+]