Soft Review | Tough, but Fair

by Andrew Parker

Both harrowing and hopeful, Joseph Amenta’s first feature Soft is a down-to-earth and sometimes purposefully abrasive look at young people left to figure out a complicated world on their own. A character study of three queer tweens from different backgrounds, economic barriers, and levels of acceptance from their families, Soft creates a fascinating and detail rich world, even if it remains a little off balance narratively. It’s a film about experience, and Amenta has assembled a fabulous cast of young actors to convey a story many would see as controversial. I would say it’s a bold look at the modern day maturation process, one that young people could identify with and older audiences could learn from if they don’t balk at the overall premise and tone.

Young Torontonian Julien (Matteus Lunot), whose shock of bright red hair and big, outspoken personality makes them easily stand out in a crowd, has been kicked out of the house by his mother. Julien has been crashing with Dawn (Miyoka Anderson), a significantly older transgender sex worker that’s been kind enough to take the kid in during their time of need, and in spite of the fact that Dawn is about to lose their apartment due to tough financial times. Julien spends most of their time hanging out with close friends – the flamboyany Tony (Zion Matheson) and closeted Otis (Harlow Joy) – stirring up shit and trying to sneak into clubs, but the good times come screeching to a halt when Julien does something that might’ve gotten Dawn into serious trouble.

Soft is set during the most pivotal and fraught period of a young person’s life, the period just before high school age. Some might argue that those four years of school – filled with adolescent landmark events – or early adult years are more formative, but Amenta chooses instead to look at the time when everything is strange and weird, and rebellion seems a lot more petulant to unknowing adults. These kids know who they want to be, but they have no clue how to achieve their personal goals, except for Tony, who has a remarkably supportive family life at home. They flounder and try their best, and lash out whenever they’re misunderstood. In short, they’re realistically drawn kids navigating a mine field of conflicting ideas from within and without.

Soft (which was originally called Pussy before it debuted at TIFF last year, and probably should still have that title because it can be that tough to watch in its harshest moments) pulls no punches and passes no judgment. These kids are who they are, and Amenta lets the viewer take it or leave it. Soft takes a little while to truly get going, but once the film makes the shift from being a drama to something more akin to an urban survival thriller around the halfway point, Amenta has laid a lot of groundwork to make that pivot work. The bedrock of Soft is made up of anger, rebellion, and unpredictability. Anything can happen at any time, and moments of darkness can come out of nowhere, even when it looks like the kids are having fun.

A lot of that danger can be caused as a result of Julien’s devil-may-care attitude, something captured brilliantly by Lunot, in a performance that could best be described as a force of nature. But while Julien takes centre stage throughout the majority of Soft, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Tony and Otis are the more interesting characters. Their struggles and successes could fill a movie on their own, and they feel pushed into the background in favour of Julien’s more kinetic and suspenseful arc. The result is a film that shares a lot of common DNA with Euphoria (only a lot better and unsurprisingly less problematic) when Soft could’ve been a lot more balanced in its ambitions.

But as a matter of realness and overall representation, Soft is more authentic than calculated. Nothing these kids are doing feels like an act or a put on to seem cooler than they are. They ride the lines between being brats and wholly relatable youngsters. The tension in their lives propelled by Amenta’s ability to make the film seem like viewers are privy to conversations happening amongst the characters in secret. It will likely be a love it or hate it kind of movie based on the subject matter and approach, but there’s plenty about Soft that needs to be admired.

Soft opens at Revue Cinema in Toronto starting Friday, April 7, 2023.

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