I Smile Back (2015)

This is essential viewing if just for Sarah Silverman’s extraordinary, transformative performance. It often feels like stunt casting when you get comedians in serious roles for indie films but Silverman bears herself so openly here and is so far from her usual persona that it is a genuinely inspired move. Even in something like Take This Waltz she emitted a somewhat radiant presence but in I Smile Back she is bitterly chilly and hostile. Wow.

I watched this very late at night, so late that even the minuscule 84 min runtime looked somewhat daunting but, luckily, the film really engaged me, especially in its opening act. As a day-in-the-life of Silverman’s character, Laney – an addiction riddled housewife recovering from mental illness – it is pretty eye-opening. To see her indulge in her various destructive vices while simultaneously keeping up the facade of normality is captivating. Interestingly, the score feels like something out of a Bourne film too which on paper sounds like an odd choice but it works totally. The filmmaking is at its best here, the handheld camerawork utilised perfectly to plunge you headfirst into this character’s headspace and world. It is chaotic, violent, fragmented but also mundane.

Sadly the film soon shifts gears into a bit of a self-help drama and loses a lot of the immediacy and formal punch of the opening act. Silverman keeps you engaged but the narrative beats feel less unique, more familiar and, well, boring. I would have happily watched this film structured as just one very long day-in-the-life drama of this character, to see her compulsive destructiveness tear her world apart bit-by-bit (I wanted this to be Krisha basically). Then the film’s less-interesting mid-point could be its finishing line. After all, most of the stuff that happens from there you can easily guess without seeing. You may even come up with something better.

By the end the film becomes a pretty bog-standard example of typical indie filmmaking. Well put together with a focus on drama, character and performance but ultimately stale and familiar. In fact it drifts awfully close to being misery porn as Laney regresses back to her old-habits and faces bad ordeal after bad ordeal with increasing grimness. I actually started to resent the film for taking Silverman’s beautiful, open-wound performance and gleefully pouring salt into it. The bleakness doesn’t feel like raw honesty (you can hear the writers shouting “people don’t just change like they do in the movies, man!”) but instead like a punishment to Laney for being so damaged. A character this unstable, with a performance this good, deserves some sort of compassion and tenderness, but with a blunt ending that literally cuts to black on a door-slam without any sense of optimism or redemption just makes you ask “well, what was the point?” Conflicted.

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