Note: This review was originally published back in February 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
I Smile Back spends most of its 85 minutes working through the paces of every movie about an addict you’ve ever seen, but it has a secret weapon: Sarah Silverman. The comedian delivers a vulnerable, raw performance in a demanding role, and joins the ranks of stand-ups capable of tapping into an affecting darkness in the right context. As Laney, Silverman transgresses against all manner of stereotypes about the affluent suburban mother in order to illustrate just how many layers those with deep-seated problems have. There’s an enormous depth to Laney, and the film’s largely rote setup suggests that it’s Silverman who gives I Smile Back its real power.
When the film starts, Laney is already out of control. Her loving husband Bruce (Josh Charles) is patient but growing tired of her mood swings. Faced with the twin pressures of raising two precocious children under the usual endless suburban scrutiny and attempting to live up to everything expected of her as Bruce’s dutiful wife, Laney spends her days while Bruce is at work and the kids are at school blowing lines and having rough sex with a family friend. At dinner she sneaks into the kitchen to house a glass of wine before refilling it, and she’ll even enjoy a little coke in the bathroom from time to time, just to even herself out. Finally, after a particularly fraught episode in which she takes down all of her vices simultaneously, pleasures herself next to her sleeping daughter, and passes out on the floor, Laney finally heads for rehab, determined to fix things before it tears her family apart.
But what I Smile Back is about isn’t her struggles to get sober, because she does that rather adeptly. The incentive of keeping the people she loves the most in her life is enough for that. What’s a lot harder is staying sober, especially when none of the things that spur on her addictive behaviors magically go away just because she’s decided not to medicate them any longer. Laney is a complex figure, and the film’s best moments flesh out little facets of what keeps her going. There are a lot of them; she’s getting into middle age, enough so that she’s starting to worry about her body. She worries that her father, who left when she was nine, might be a harbinger of her own future. She’s a great mom and a good wife, albeit one alternately doted upon and treated as an accessory by Bruce depending on the situation. She genuinely wants to stay sober but is too often at the mercy of her own hazardous impulses.
In Laney, Silverman finds a character for whom “likability” is irrelevant. She’s human, messily so, and with all the many meanings that fit within that broad category. When she’s caught crawling around on the bathroom floor with a bloodied nose, trite as the moment feels, it cuts deep simply because of the mixture of sudden self-awareness, shame, profound sadness, and anger that crosses her face, all at once. The film goes through its paces, from longing gazes at bar doors to tearful shouting matches that underline its running themes in triplicate, but it excels when it steps back and simply observes Laney, in all her arch hilarity and pain and cruelty alike. It’s unclear whether or not her genuine desire to make good will overrule her self-destructive instincts, but Laney is trying. She truly is, and sometimes that’s all any of us can do.
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