Snapshots into a life unraveling, I Smile Back is an unpleasant, earnest look at the struggles of coping with bipolar disorder and addiction. New Jersey housewife and mother of two children, Laney Brooks is prone to mistakes. Chief among them her decision to abruptly stop taking the lithium tablets that treat her mental disorder. She pounds alcohol at dinner, snorts cocaine in the bathroom, and cheats on her husband with their friend, but even when she’s home there’s a cavernous distance between the married couple.
This, the second feature film from Dare director Adam Salky, is the type of intimate suburban drama that’s a regular feature on film festival circuits. It feels recognizable if not familiar up until its depressing final few scenes. The biggest difference being that I Smile Back unexpectedly stars an unrelentingly vulnerable Sarah Silverman.
Silverman’s most notable work has been as a potty-mouthed, faux-naif stand up comedian with taboo-defying bits on abortion or incest. The affable, hard-edged charm she can exude is present in I Smile Back, too – particularly in the scenes where when Laney cuts loose and indulges her bad behavior – but more often, Silverman plays a frantic bag of mixed emotions.
She’s a capable actress, too, one with the emotional intelligence to portray her character’s erratic mood swings. The duality of her abilities in the role of Laney underscores the character’s core bipolar issues. There are two sides to Laney, her more jovial, normal self and the apathetic, thoughtless person she regularly becomes.
Beginning the film on the verge of a breakdown, Laney flips between attentive mother and frazzled mess. In one moment she’s scribbling her kids’ names on their sack lunches with crayons, and in the next she speeds out of the school parking lot on her way to a coked up rendezvous with her lover. Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman’s script (based on Koppelman’s book of the same) insinuates that Laney has never fully escaped the trauma of being abandoned by her father at nine. Yet, her problems are so pressing that the movie’s brief tangent to confront Laney’s past feels like an uninformative disruption.
She’s a short fuse waiting to get lit. Laney can barely last through half a minute on the phone with another boy’s mother before screaming into the receiver and slamming it down. At some undefined point, she’s ceded the “good parent” duties to her husband Bruce (a steady and empathetic Josh Charles). “I don’t see why anybody bothers loving anything,” she confesses in bed to Bruce during a conversation about the family’s new pet dog.
Laney learns to expect impermanence in her life. Whether it’s through habit or by nature, the cycle of good days leading to bad ones is Laney’s only constant. It makes her a frustrating protagonist much the way that she would likely be a frustrating wife or mother. To that end, I Smile Back may be more effective than it is enjoyable. Its quick scenes provide scattershot glimpses into the Laney’s scrambled emotional state, but often the scene ends a moment too soon. I Smile Back might be a more satisfying film had it allowed us to sit at the visitor’s table or in the upstate New York bar with Laney just a bit longer. You want to see how the characters will react next.
Silverman remains captivating throughout, and it’s a shame that the film can’t match the energy of her performance. She embodies the stubborn evasiveness that causes addicts to relapse. Looking into her eyes, Silverman leaves no room for misinterpretation. Laney is palpably in or out of control of her actions. It’s easily the furthest stretch we’ve seen from the comedian as an actress – more surprising than her family-friend turn in Wreck-It-Ralph or her semi-serious part in Take This Waltz – comfortably and successfully diverging from comedy-driven material.
At a sleek 85 minutes, I Smile Back doesn’t offer much beyond the tropes of its genre. Laney falls victim to repetitive, irredeemable patterns, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tolerate despite her circumstance. Amy Koppelman’s story leaves little room for optimism. Though the film is well-acted, especially by its lead Sarah Silverman, I Smile Back is otherwise an unremarkable story of depression-fueled reckless compulsion.
A staggeringly compelling performance from Sarah Silverman is the only surprise in the staid addiction drama, I Smile Back.