From ‘Past Lives’ to ‘Aftersun’: The anatomy of a ‘quiet movie’

Dana Villano

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From ‘Past Lives’ to ‘Aftersun’: The anatomy of a ‘quiet movie’
‘Past Lives,’ ‘Normal People,’ ‘Aftersun’ – the ‘quiet movie’ is having a moment in cinema. But what exactly makes these movies so special?

MANILA, Philippines – In the action-packed landscape of cinema nowadays, “quiet” indie films seem to have become increasingly popular. 

We first saw it in Manchester by the Sea and Brooklyn  – and now we’re seeing it in critically acclaimed indie darlings Past Lives and Aftersun

This isn’t the first time these kinds of movies have been made, of course, but now they seem to be gaining larger critical and commercial success than ever before. People are opting for these types of films even amidst all the big blockbusters being peddled in theaters today. 

But what exactly constitutes a “quiet movie,” and why is it so revolutionary? 

It’s, well, quiet

As the name might suggest, everything from the sound design to the lingering scenic shots takes a careful and slow pace – most of these films can stay in just one place over the course of the entire movie. 

But this principle applies to the dialogue, too –  take, for example, the film Past Lives released just this year, a heartbreaking story directed by Celine Song about two former lovers who grew up together as children in Korea now reconnecting as adults. When they finally meet in New York for the first time in over two decades, most of their interaction is wordless – stares of disbelief, nervous laughter, long intense glances. 

From ‘Past Lives’ to ‘Aftersun’: The anatomy of a ‘quiet movie’

Words have power in quiet films, and here, what’s being left unsaid becomes almost as important as what is. When directors exert this type of restraint, every single thing the characters do and say magically becomes heavy with the magnitude of their meaning. 

Or take a look at these clips from Charlotte Wells’ Academy Award-nominated Aftersun (2022), which was named one of the best films of 2022 by the National Board of Review, and Luca Guadagnino’s Academy Award-winning Call Me By Your Name (2015).

From ‘Past Lives’ to ‘Aftersun’: The anatomy of a ‘quiet movie’

Nothing of note really happens in these scenes, so why even bother showing them? But what they accomplish within just a few minutes is that very quickly, you get a sense of the world these filmmakers are creating. You’re not just shown these worlds – you’re immersed in them, given the time to soak it all in. The aesthetic “feel” of these films works beautifully to set the stage for the real star of the movie – the characters within them. 

People in the spotlight

Here is where the real heart of a quiet movie lies. The muted backdrop against which these stories take place allows the actors to really shine, placing their performances at the forefront. Even with an ensemble cast, these types of films often place the emotional journey these characters undergo front and center, as opposed to just the circumstances they find themselves in. 

From ‘Past Lives’ to ‘Aftersun’: The anatomy of a ‘quiet movie’

The 2015 film Manchester by the Sea (also Academy Award-winning) is widely considered to be among the best films of the 21st century, focusing entirely on Casey Affleck’s character Lee as a grief-stricken man who returns to his seaside town and must confront the things he left behind. As the story progresses, we slowly learn the true nature of why he left as well as the extent of his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. We stay with Lee for the entirety of the film as he suffers in silence, dealing with the aftermath of his brother’s death, having to take care of his now-orphaned nephew, and coming across his ex-wife from whom he feels he does not deserve forgiveness for the death of their children. 

Quiet movies aren’t afraid to sit in all these uncomfortable emotions – in fact, this is where they take their time. Films like Manchester by the Sea trust in their actors to deliver, always bringing the camera back to their faces so we can see what they see, feel what they feel. 

Or take Brooklyn (2015) where the radiant Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a young Irish girl who makes her way to America from Ireland. We see Eilis struggle with fierce homesickness, eventually making a life for herself on foreign shores and even finding love. The film all comes to a head in this scene, where Eilis returns home to Ireland and finds herself having to choose between her newfound home and the only home she’s ever known.

From ‘Past Lives’ to ‘Aftersun’: The anatomy of a ‘quiet movie’

The way we come to identify with these characters is by getting to live their ups and downs right there with them. Although perhaps not climactic in the way we usually think of when we hear the word, it’s the film’s emotions that crescendo beautifully into charged, impactful scenes laced with meaning and depth – and that’s what makes these types of films worth watching. 

They’re exceedingly ordinary

Perhaps the biggest distinguisher of quiet films is how they choose to focus on the everyday ordinary lives of very ordinary people. These movies are deceptively unassuming in that you can even imagine them actually happening to you, much unlike the overplayed extravagance we’re used to seeing depicted on-screen. Films like these somehow manage to take the most blasé ordeals known to man and transform them into something worth watching for two hours.

Another Paul Mescal favorite, Normal People follows two young people who weave in and out of one another’s lives over the course of four years. But in this scene where one of our main characters, Connell, finally goes to therapy and breaks down, the feelings he expresses – “I left thinking I could have a different life… But I hate it here, and now I can never get that life back.” – all feel achingly real and familiar.

From ‘Past Lives’ to ‘Aftersun’: The anatomy of a ‘quiet movie’

We see Connell fidget, stumble over his words, pause for awkwardly long amounts of time, try and fail to keep the emotions from their face. But it’s exactly how films like these show the sides of ourselves that aren’t as pretty that make them meaningful. The more vulnerable and honest a story on screen is, the more it resonates with people; at its core, the kind of people portrayed by quiet movies on-screen are just achingly, painfully human.

Even the best Studio Ghibli films have this remarkable quality about them – they’re often set in the most mundane settings at school or work, and yet they’re made to be so vibrant and magical that even the ordinary somehow appears extraordinary in their hands. Everything from their depiction of tasty dishes to the gorgeous hand-painted scenery inspires people to start seeing even an everyday train ride to school as something worth paying attention to – and that’s the power these kinds of film holds.

Quiet movies tell us: isn’t it the most ordinary things that become the most important to us once we start paying attention to them?

When done well, the quiet movie masterfully portrays the heart of the human condition, putting on screen both our innermost vulnerabilities and our sources of hope. This type of filmmaking is a fresh breath of air for modern-day cinemagoers, for at its best, quiet movies are a tribute to the strength we find in ourselves and the people we love. And is there anything more human than that? –

Dana Villano is a Rappler intern.

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