Edinburgh 2014: ‘Uncertain Terms’ review


Nathan Silver has been gradually nurturing a reputation as a director with a deft eye for detail and an astonishing ability for documenting the seemingly insignificant anxieties of modern life. Edinburgh Film Festival select Uncertain Terms (2014) is his most compelling and accomplished film to date, a small but deceptively complex character-driven drama set in a halfway house for pregnant teens that’s both charmingly facetious and emotionally compelling. Robbie (David Dahlbom) is fleeing his life in New York to spend some time working at his aunt’s retreat for unmarried pregnant teenagers. He’s hoping that a few weeks away will help take his mind of his disintegrating marriage.

However, it soon transpires that a house of hormonal, expectant teenagers isn’t the best place for a cuckolded husband to seek solitude. With little to do other than study and rest, Robbie quickly becomes the focus of the girl’s attention, especially the impulsive and brazen Jean (Tallie Medel) who has no qualms about announcing her intentions. However, Robbie finds himself seduced by the enigmatic allure of Nina (India Menuez), a freckle-faced redhead who masks her anxieties about her immature boyfriend’s inability to take her pregnancy seriously behind a veneer of tranquil indifference. For a film set within a commune of expectant young mothers, it’s a shame the majority of Uncertain Terms is viewed through Robbie’s eyes – with some of the girls only ever vaguely defined.

Though Uncertain Terms couldn’t be defined as a feminist movie, by eschewing the all too systematic objectification of women the representation of its young female cast is rather refreshing. The film opens on Nina as she strolls down a picturesque rural trail. Filmed from behind we stalk her as she gracefully saunters down the road, luring us towards her like a siren. She turns suddenly so we can see her bump, and you can almost hear Silver laughing at his audience. Later, during a birthday party, the director films the girls as they dance to Khia’s My Neck, My Back (Lick It), appropriating the salacious gaze of hip hop music videos whilst focusing on the baby bumps of his female cast as they dance and gyrate. It’s this awareness of female objectification which demonstrates Silver is attuned to what makes the people around him tick. Filmed in the serene woodland of New York State, he imbues his naturalistic style with moments of eerie grace that mirror the disconnect between the commune and the real world these girls have been removed from.

By inhabiting this space he examines the anxieties of his cast, allowing emotions to be observed under the microscope of his observational lens whilst the real world lingers impatiently just outside the frame. This approach allows Silver to permeate the scrip with his humble, multifaceted ideas and allow them to incubate under his idiosyncratic and highly spontaneous direction. Perfectly calibrated to his characters’ thoughts and desires, the director successfully manages to temper this hive of rampant hormones, with the sporadic outbursts of discourse and comedy that naturally emerge from this awkward domestic dynamic. Indeed, with his latest effort it feel like Silver has found an accessible conduit for his charmingly naturalistic approach that should hopefully appeal to a wider audience. A stylish, funny and affecting portrait of love, kinship and the inconsequential strife that affects many of us daily, Uncertain Terms is a quiet revelation.

The 68th Edinburgh Film Festival takes place from 18-29 June 2014. For more of our EIFF coverage, follow this link.

Patrick Gamble