No movie released in 2015 owes as much gratitude to its lead actor as I Smile Back, a mostly-dreary collection of indie-drama cliches that is miraculously rescued from awfulness by a knockout Sarah Silverman performance. The story this film tells will be thoroughly familiar to anyone who has endured their share of lower-tier Sundance entries; a gritty tale of tragedy and addiction that wallows in despair at every possible opportunity. A lot of bad indie films are made bearable by good performances, but Silverman achieves even more in this case: she turns the movie into something gripping.
She plays Laney Brooks, a suburban mom whose life is in complete disarray. Her relationship with her husband Bruce (Josh Charles, The Good Wife) is alternately tense and ugly, she's hooked on prescription drugs, she's hooked on cocaine, she's an alcoholic, she's stopped taking the medication she's supposed to be taking and she's having an affair with her husband's best friend Donny (Thomas Sadoski, The Newsroom). Considering all of this, it's understandable that she's also having trouble taking care of her two kids (Shayne Coleman, The Following and Skylar Gaertner, Daredevil). Eventually, she gets caught, and goes to rehab. Suffice it to say that the recovery process won't be easy.
That's an awful lot of self-destructive behavior for one movie, and an awful lot of easy opportunities for overacting (something a lot of addiction dramas tend to lend themselves to). However, there isn't a single moment in Silverman's performance that feels like an exercise in excess – she's playing a woman who is imploding, making it all-too-easy for the people in her life to completely overlook her struggles. Somehow, the only prominent weakness poor, oblivious Bruce notices is Laney's habit of constantly sucking on lollipops (“You have to eat real food, hun”).
Eventually, it becomes clear that all of Laney's behavior is rooted in depression. Silverman has spoken about her own struggles with depression in the past, and while it's important to separate the actress from the character she's playing, it's clear that she has a profound understanding of what depression does to a person – the way it numbs you and ruins the things you love. At one point, a sexually-satisfied Donny tells Laney that he loves her. “No you don't,” she says. “And even if you do, it doesn't mean anything.” She's right, but when Bruce offers a considerably more sincere declaration of affection, she experiences the same sort of half-disgusted indifference. That's not who she is, but that's the person depression has turned her into.
The film's most potent scenes come when Silverman recognizes the impact her illness is having on her children. Their presence always seems to force her to work a little harder to seem okay, which in turn inspires Bruce to use the children as a shield to protect Laney from herself. What he doesn't realize is that what she needs more than anything is to open up to him about everything she's done and everything she's going through. He doesn't want to talk about it, perhaps because he feels her various sins – whatever they are – will be easier to forgive if they remain abstract. Meanwhile, she keeps imploding. In one particularly wrenching moment, Silverman wanders into her sleeping daughter's room and silently masturbates. Afterwards, overcome with some combination of horror and shame, she begins to sob – and then immediately silences herself, worried that she'll wake her daughter up.
The third act is undeniably melodramatic, filled with big moments of self-destruction that feel more like screenwriting contrivances than a natural evolution of the journey Laney is on. Somehow, Silverman makes every one of these moments feel real, and the primal power of her work ultimately outweighs any intellectual objections one might have to the material. The smartest thing I Smile Back does is acknowledging that it doesn't really have an answer for any of the things it addresses. There is no miracle cure (though we observe a few things that might help), there is no easily explained psychological cause (though we revisit a few of Laney's painful memories) and no healthy coping mechanisms are proposed. Will the movie help anyone understand depression? Probably not, though it may at least remind people with depression that there are other people who understand. Sometimes, acknowledgment of despair's power can be more effective than promises of hope.
I Smile Back
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 85 minutes
Release Year: 2015