D: Adam Salky / 85m
Cast: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski, Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman, Mia Barron, Terry Kinney, Chris Sarandon
When we first meet Laney Brooks (Silverman), she’s in her bathroom, looking out the window at her husband Bruce (Charles) and their two young children, Eli (Gaertner) and Janey (Coleman), as they all shoot hoops. But she’s not actually seeing them. Her gaze is too distant, too removed from what’s going on outside. Instead she’s remembering recent events in her life: taking her kids to school, getting Chinese at a local restaurant, a dinner party with their friends Donny (Sadowski) and Susan (Barron), the unexpected arrival of a dog called Bingo… and then she snorts cocaine before taking a bath.
Faced with this kind of introduction to a character, some viewers may feel that they don’t want to spend any more time with them and will decide to go watch something else, something more light-hearted perhaps. But they would be missing out on one of the most impressive performances by an actress in the whole of 2015.
As I Smile Back progresses we come to realise that Laney has a heck of a lot more problems than just taking cocaine. She drinks to excess, pops pills like they’re sweets, and is cheating on Bruce with Donny. As well as struggling with being a wife, she struggles with being a mother, being overly fearful for Eli in particular, while proving unable to manage something as simple as bringing her school I.D. badge with her when she drops the kids off. She’s always a second or two behind everyone else, always a little distracted, always a little “vacant”.
It’s at around this point in Adam Salky’s take on the novel by Amy Koppelman (who also co-scripted with Paige Dylan) that the viewer begins to realise that Laney is suffering from depression and has mental health problems; the irresponsible behaviour is merely a sign of her inability to cope with every day life and its responsibilities. The average viewer will also realise that the movie can now only go in one of two ways: either Laney will hit rock bottom, get help, and get better, or she’ll spiral out of control until tragedy strikes. But Koppelman’s story takes a third way, one in which Laney has every opportunity to avoid ruining the rest of her life, but the question is: will she?
Thanks to the aforementioned impressive performance by Silverman, the answer to that question is not as simple as expected. There are some formulaic twists and turns to the story that most viewers will see coming, but on the whole, Laney is a character to root for, even when her self-destructive behaviour would have most people walking the other way. Silverman is incredibly good as a woman weighed down by the trauma of being abandoned by her father when she was nine, and whose inability to deal with the subsequent issues that have grown up around that event has led to the addictive behaviour that dictates her daily life. She has a loving husband, two great kids (though the movie hints that Eli may end up emulating his mother when he’s older), and an outwardly envious lifestyle. But for Laney, everything comes to an end; why not her marriage and all that goes with it?
After she drinks and takes too many drugs one night, Laney has a spell in rehab, and the movie starts to give her a chance, though there’s a noticeable distance now between her and Bruce that doesn’t bode well for the future. She talks about her father, and the fact that even though she knows where he lives, she hasn’t contacted him in thirty years (and vice versa). It becomes a challenge, to visit her father, and when she does Laney discovers that seeing him wasn’t such a great idea. From then on, things begin to spiral out of control again.
Let’s say it again: Silverman is magnificent as the self-torturing Laney. It’s the kind of dark, messy role that comediennes seem to be able to pull off without any problem at all, and Silverman gives a breathtakingly honest portrayal of a woman whose feelings are so raw, and yet who can’t connect with her emotions. And if you thought that this wouldn’t be an uncomfortable movie to watch because of Silverman’s presence, then there’s a scene involving a stuffed toy that shows just how committed the actress was to the role.
But, sadly, Silverman’s performance isn’t matched by Salky’s direction. The movie suffers from an icy tone that matches the wintry New York state locations, and Salky never fleshes out the characters around Laney, leaving Bruce to look and sound like a self-important grump with no amount of sympathy for Laney’s problems, while Sarandon as Laney’s father can only do limp regret in his brief scenes. The camera spends quite a lot of time observing Laney, and only gets in close when she’s really hurting or in trouble. Otherwise there’s a detachment going on that hampers the viewer from connecting with Laney, and stops any sympathy for her from becoming full-blown. It’s as if Salky has decided that, despite the obvious emotional traumas that Laney experiences, his movie is going to be more of an intellectual exercise, an examination of a character as they descend through their own personal hell. It’s not an approach that works, and detracts from the limited “enjoyment” the movie has to offer.
The script too has its faults, not least in the way that it avoids providing a convincing explanation for Laney’s mental illness/depression, and instead shows her popping pills, snorting coke, and gulping wine over and over, as if we won’t be aware of how addictive her behaviour is unless we keep seeing it. Eli’s problems are introduced but no attempt is made to resolve them, and her affair with Donny (which has so much dramatic potential) is dropped without a backward glance. Also, the scenes at the rehab centre are too short and too lacking in depth for them to be anything other than a bridge between two sets of aberrant behaviours, and the advice and comfort given by Laney’s psychiatrist (Kinney) is banal to the point of, well, extreme banality. But the final scene in the movie is thematically perfect, and ties in neatly with Laney’s problems, albeit to heartbreaking effect.
Rating: 7/10 – if it wasn’t for Silverman’s superb, and often harrowing, performance then I Smile Back wouldn’t be an attractive prospect, thanks to Salky’s distant feel for the material, and the repetitive nature of Laney’s behaviour built in to the script; but Silverman is superb, and her performance holds the movie together in a way that should be rewarded come Oscar time, but which will probably be ignored in favour of more mainstream, multiplex-friendly portayals – and that really is depressing.