I Smile Back isn’t Sarah Silverman’s first foray into drama, but outside of her few supporting roles, this dramatic portrait of a depressed, self-destructive wife and mother is a stark transformation from her typical roles and her familiar comic persona.
We are introduced to Laney Brooks (Silverman) when she is already at her worst; snorting coke on the toilet, completely naked, watching through the window as her husband (Josh Charles) and two children play basketball just outside. Laney completely adores her children and her husband, Bruce, is so clearly enraptured with her even after years of marriage. But after morning kisses and school drop-offs, Laney itches for a respite from her family, finding it in drugs, alcohol and seedy trysts with a fellow parent – a somewhat tired trope that almost reduces her to a bored housewife.
The film’s timeline is a loose jumble of scenes that follow Laney’s despair, self-sabotage, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stint in rehab, and the effect her behaviour has on her family. From incidents as small as neglecting middle-school policies to the more damaging like ingesting a cocktail of wine and prescription drugs or a truly unsettling sexual encounter with her daughter’s teddy bear, Laney’s depressive spiral is brutal to watch from start to finish. Sarah Silverman doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to portraying Laney’s misery and recklessness, capable of making audiences feel supremely uncomfortable or disturbed by her actions, whilst maintain her gallows humour. Unfortunately, Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman’s script fails to burrow beyond the surface of Laney’s unbalanced, selfish behaviour.
Although Laney’s estranged father (Chris Sarandon) is shoehorned into the film in a clumsy attempt to offer backstory and insight into her depression, Laney remains an enigma for most of the film, her motivations only growing vaguer with time. This is only compounded by her seemingly perfect family. Josh Charles has such a knack for charming audiences with his ability to play the role of the ‘good guy’ (RIP Will Gardner) that when paired up against a character that is consistently making harmful choices, it becomes difficult to ever sympathise with anyone else. As ignorant as it would be to write off Laney’s suffering because her family are so attentive and supportive, it continues to raise the same nagging question that the film never adequately answers: What drove Laney to her depression? We see her exhibit dozens of signs of mental illness, but the film shies away from ever examining them in detail.
At a running time of eighty minutes, I Smile Back is brief, ending so abruptly and without a shred of resolution that the preceding scenes become somewhat superfluous. Aside from providing Silverman with a number of meaty, dramatic scenes to to sink her teeth into, I Smile Back presents only a shallow representation of mental illness that never lives up to its potential.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10