TIFF 2015: I Smile Back
Laney has a everything she could hope for – beautiful children and a loving husband. But she also carries with her depression and addictions which threaten the life that she has built for herself. I Smile Back examines the struggle against her own destructive nature as she tries to hold on to everything that she holds dear.
Laney is surrounded by love, but the thick fog of her depression clouds it all, and she resorts to drugs and hookups to feel something new. Her husband Bruce (Josh Charles) is aware that Laney has issues, but the full depth is either hidden or he ignores it. Conflict stems from Laney’s lies and increasingly self-destructive behaviour, but also from Bruce’s unrealistic expectations for her after the worst of it becomes clear. Sadly, it is difficult to really fault one character over another. Both are trapped.
Sarah Silverman is a somewhat divisive actress. Known for bold and raunchy comedy, it was difficult to judge if she could hold up the meaty role of Laney, the drug-addicted housewife. But the topic of depression is one close to Silverman’s heart – she has gone on record regarding her fears of passing on her own depression-causing genes to children. This is mirrored in I Smile Back with Laney’s horror at her son Eli developing anxiety-based coping rituals. The guilt that she feels, right or wrong, only contributes to her downward spiral. Silverman’s performance is raw and simply heartbreaking. Subtle directing choices bring Laney’s isolation home for the audience, letting you sense her distance and emptiness without having to resort to tropes like voice-overs. It is an understated film, relying on the skills of the actors.
I have seen some critique that the film lacks a sense of purpose, or even of resolution. But I have to say I do applaud the bold choice to leave things open ended for Laney. Life with mental illness cannot be cured after a few therapy sessions and getting one’s groove back. It can be a long, dark and lonely road. Many addicts have to hit rock bottom more than once before they can work their way out of the addictions, and perhaps Laney’s path lies down that road. So we finish the film with sombre reality rather than a feel-good ending, and it leaves a lot of food for thought.