Directed by: Adam Salky
Premise: A woman (Sarah Silverman) struggling with bipolar disorder and drug abuse enters rehab to correct the course of her life but after she’s discharged the temptations remain.
What Works: I Smile Back is a character study of a woman suffering from mental illness. The film succeeds primarily due to the performance of Sarah Silverman. She’s generally known for her work in comedy but Silverman previously played a similar character in 2012’s Take This Waltz. Silverman’s role in I Smile Back takes her down a much bleaker path than anything she has done before and she is quite good in the part. Her character is a married mother of two children who has abandoned her lithium prescription and substituted it with narcotics and affairs. Silverman plays this woman with a great deal of authenticity and a fearless abandon. I Smile Back requires Silverman to put herself in vulnerable positions but the movie doesn’t come across as exploitative. Instead, the picture takes a dispassionate view of a woman who feels empty and is in search of stimulation that will stave off that emptiness. The supporting case of I Smile Back is also impressive, especially the husband played by Josh Charles. In addiction narratives the spouse can sometimes come across naïve or saintly but Charles’ character is not the doting husband. There is a lot to the marriage that is communicated without ever being overtly stated. The husband is a flawed character and it is hinted that he is aware of his wife’s transgressions but ignores them to keep the family together. The relationships between the parents and the children have a lot of reality to them, especially between Silverman’s character and her son played Skylar Gaertner. He shows signs of his own mental disorder which causes guilt in his mother, and that furthers her own problems. The filmmakers of I Smile Back admirably refuse to explain away the roots of mental illness or conclude on a disingenuously neat resolution. Hollywood films tend to reaffirm the belief that love conquers all, no matter what the struggle. I Smile Back suggests that this woman does indeed love her family but she also loves the drugs—or at least what the drugs do for her—and these competing desires are ultimately irreconcilable. That culminates in an ending that is not especially happy but is appropriately ambiguous.
What Doesn’t: I Smile Back suffers from some unprofessional filmmaking flaws. The picture’s most glaring problem is the soundtrack. The audio frequently sounds as though it was recorded in a public restroom, especially in quiet scenes where the distortion becomes distracting. A few of the sequences are shot and edited together awkwardly and the movie includes a few highly stylized shots that are inconsistent with the more naturalistic style of the rest of the picture. I Smile Back is intended to plunge the viewer into the sense of hopelessness and worthlessness of a deeply depressed person. The filmmakers accomplish that but the narrative is awkwardly structured. The story does not build from one event to the next. Instead the rise and fall of the character’s fortunes is much more arbitrary. The actions and reactions of Silverman’s character don’t seem motivated by anything or they are counterintuitive to everything else happening to her. To some degree that’s appropriate to the subject matter but the film doesn’t help us understand this woman and her condition. The movie remains on the surface of everything and especially the psychological ticks of the main character.
Bottom Line: I Smile Back has a revelatory performance by Sarah Silverman but the movie is a bit shallow and redundant in its examination of mental illness and the picture is held back by flaws in the filmmaking.
Episode: #574 (December 20, 2015)