Exit Elena, a subtle yet affecting film written and directed by Nathan Silver, chronicles the first weeks of the title character’s first professional assignment as a home health aid. Placed with a family that arguably needs the services of much more than one nursing professional, Elena, played by co-writer Kia Davis, attempts to navigate the delicate distinctions between personal and professional relationships while trying to decipher her own position within the family’s dynamic.
Elena arrives at the home of the Akermans shortly after receiving her certification. She is congenial and well-liked by her charge, the elderly mother of Jim Akerman (Jim Chiros), but also quiet and reserved. While she has the demeanor and discipline appropriate for a live-in professional aid, Cindy (Cindy Silver), Jim’s wife, feels put off by how remote Elena seems and goes to great lengths to have her assimilate into their family. She encourages Elena to wear her own cloths instead of a uniform and continually affirms that she is now part of the household. Cindy’s attempts to control and direct Elena’s interactions and attitudes creates a claustrophobic feeling that simultaneously erases any semblance of privacy Elena hoped to retain.
These interior and exterior spaces, which operate as barriers between the personal and the public sphere, are often transgressed by certain physical and metaphorical gestures. The opening and closing of doors and windows allows for connections to be established and severed, while certain intermediary spaces like the porch and garage become areas of candid exchanges and transition. Elena and Cindy spend a formative evening lounging in lawn chairs situated at the opening of the Akerman’s garage. They smoke and sing Serbian folk songs and reach something close to friendship or at least community. Thematic tropes of stability and escape also run throughout the film. Elena seems destined to be semi-transient with no home base. Her choice of profession also implies a life of continual transition from home to client, or family. This uncertainty is made even more evident by the aforementioned exit implied within the film’s title.
Though this is a small and understated film, its verite qualities and frank treatment of the tenuous interpersonal relationships that can evolve when family dynamics are interrupted or reconfigured, is pointed and intimate in its assessment of each character’s needs or wants, even though the solutions are often disguised or obscured by nostalgia and misguided intentions. Jim, who works from home, is trapped between his domestic and professional space. Cindy is also unable to separate Elena’s vocational purpose from her desire to cultivate a friendship with the young nurse. Jim and Cindy’s son Nathan, who upon his return home exhibits erratic and inappropriate behaviors, cannot detect what actions are acceptable or unsuitable. This confusion ultimately breeds alienation, leaving each character in Exit Elena profoundly lonely and usually isolated.
What at times feels trite is the film’s separation into chapters and demarcated segments of time. This formal gimmick seems unnecessary and can be distracting, and the film’s narrative development is so organic and fluid that the seemingly arbitrary assignment of chapters diminishes Exit Elena’s artistic achievements. Still, the film rarely feels precious or stilted as some movies made in this manner can seem. Instead, Exit Elena attains an authentic and realistic sensibility without sacrificing craft or style.