Adapted from the novel I Smile Back
Run Time: 85 Mins.
This review contains mild spoilers.
In her first major dramatic role, Sarah Silverman stars as Laney, an upper-middle class housewife in New York coping with “daddy issues,” as she calls it, which manifests in the form of cocaine, xanax and alcohol addiction, as well as extra-marital anal sex in between dropping her kids off at school and picking them up in the afternoon. The film garnered heaps of ever-coveted “Sundance buzz,” deservedly so for Silverman’s performance. It also asks of her to fully bare herself – physically and emotionally – to visualize an intensely personal portrait of depression, and Silverman nails the subtle expressions of hollowness expertly. But I Smile Back also feels like a disjointed effort aimed primarily to tug on emotional strings rather than make a political or sociological statement on addiction in American society.
Early in the film, Laney stares at herself nude in the mirror, examining what her breasts and face may look like with a “lift.” Doesn’t media always implicate this pressure on women of her age? She is also estranged from her father, whom she hasn’t spoken with in years. She may also be bipolar, having gone off her prescribed medications, plunging her into self-medication.
The official plot synopsis insinuates the thesis of the film has something to say about the facade of American suburban life, ala American Beauty, where beneath Laney’s shiny exterior “lie depression and disillusionment that send her careening into a secret world of reckless compulsion.” However, I Smile Back falls short of addressing an idea of suburban or capitalist alienation. Laney is actually, at heart, a loving mother and at times, between railing lines of white powder, embraces her role as such. At one point before her addiction has reached a tipping point, Laney is bereft she can’t walk her young daughter to class after a new military-like ID checkpoint and bureaucratic worker at the school informs her that if she forgot her ID, she can’t enter – a slight nod to the increasing fear and police-state policy encroaching many American institutions.
If the film isn’t making a grand statement on suburban life, what is the film saying about addiction? That the disease is blind to one’s skin color and socioeconomic standing? This goes without saying. However, Laney’s husband Bruce (Josh Charles), seems relegated to play the role of the unsympathetic caretaker and empirically-obsessed thinker. He takes Laney to rehab, pleading that if she doesn’t want to “get better” for him, to do it for the kids. But what if this is outside Laney’s control? Bruce asks her why she stopped taking her medication. When Laney replies they make her fat, he exclaims, “So you would rather be insane?”
Bruce approaches Laney’s addiction from a moral high-ground; a place of judgement. But he himself isn’t especially righteous. After Laney completes rehab and the couple are at a dinner party, Bruce is flirting with a woman across the table. Laney seems to perceive this hypocrisy and bursts out calling the object of her husband’s desire a prostitute. Of course, this bruises Bruce’s ego and the ripples in their marriage continue to grow wider.
Apart from scenes where Bruce assures Laney that if she follows the linear measures of rehab and therapy that she will be cured, the film is all Laney in constant conflict with herself and her demons, the point where I Smile Back becomes most powerful. Two extreme close-up shots of Silverman’s face are mirrored in the film; one where she is laying face-down on the floor of her daughter’s bedroom while she is asleep, a teddy bear between her legs as she begins to masturbate. The camera is situated just inches from her face, showing us at once an array of expressions between guilt, pleasure, embarrassment and utter distress. The second time Silverman’s face is framed in extreme close-up while she is laying on the ground comes in a powerful climactic scene after she has taken sexual pleasure in violence inflicted upon her from a stranger outside a bar. This time, her face is mangled and bloody, but her expression is almost one of non-expression. Laney has hit rock bottom and all she can do at this point is make her children one last PB&J before walking away from the “shiny” life she lead.
Laney also attempted to seek closure by visiting her estranged father, who surprisingly has a daughter she never met. But Laney can’t express her emotions to him, nor to her husband, nor to her therapist. Her demons surface in the forms of addiction and taxi-cab tears.
Is Laney a victim of suburban pressure to maintain a socially acceptable exterior, or the victim of both her, and her husband’s, inability to articulate to communicate their pain? Either of course would be a subjective assumption, and although a few interpretations and readings can be made, director Adam Salky stops just short of making a strong gesture either way, even towards the subjective, open-ended readings. The fly on the wall style of cinematography keeps the film visually engaging while Silverman delivers a breakthrough, career-altering performance. Narratively, however, the montages of coke lines and bright-lit daytime adultery often produce jarring emotional responses, but do not amount to much of a thematic climax.
I Smile Back opens today in limited release.