Published Dec 03, 2015In Adam Salky's I Smile Back, Sarah Silverman plays Laney Brooks, a (mostly) happily married mother of two with a tendency to fuck her good friend's husband and snort cocaine in the bathroom. Internally, she's a wreck but, for the most part, she keeps things on an even keel, abusing substances secretly when her family and friends are less likely to notice. It's an indirect extension of her character in Take this Waltz, who was an alcoholic with a propensity for inexplicably going on benders.
The distinction here, beyond Laney being the main character and the focus of the film, is the degree of severity in which the issue is handled and how Silverman portrays her. Though there's some black humour here, courtesy of the inappropriately drunken Laney — she calls a trophy bride a prostitute at a work dinner and tells off another parent for shoving adult politics down a kid's throat — this is not in any way a comedy. And, what's particularly admirable about this performance from a well-known, wildly irreverent comedian is that she avoids being funny even in these moments, finding the honesty and awkwardly inappropriate nature of these socially taboo situations rather than resting on what she knows.
Written by Paige Dylan (Bob Dylan's daughter-in-law), I Smile Back is a serious, yet intentionally mundane drama about addiction. Initially, Laney is entirely functional despite being a morally objectionable character; there's also no overwhelming sense that she's a direct danger to her children or indulges in extramarital sex from lack of fulfilment. Her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), is quite supportive and there's really no indication that her actions stem from a passive destructive desire. What's being depicted, with very little exposition or explanation — things are shown and not told — is a person with impulse control issues.
Once Laney's disease progresses past the point of being manageable (after a night of binge drinking, she dry humps a stuffed animal on her daughter's floor while the child sleeps), the basic observational style of this rather candid film becomes discomforting and challenging. Both Salky and Dylan refuse to pass judgment on the protagonist, but they also never give us justification for her behaviour or a specific redeeming attribute or reason for the audience to invest in Laney.
Through Silverman's rather wounded, introverted performance — she really only speaks her mind and acts confident when drunk and/or stoned — we understand that despite her behaviour, she loves and cares for her husband and children, which is why her destructive actions prove so alienating and contradictory. And while this stylistic decision does ultimately make palatable and mature what could easily have been a preachy bit of moralizing, there are still a couple of minor problems that keep this otherwise effective drama from greatness.
Once the storyline plops Laney in front of an addiction counsellor (Terry Kinney), we learn about some paternal abandonment issues. Basic psychologizing suggests that her desire for physical gratification from various men stems from this, but that seems too easy for a film that deliberately denies catharsis and explanation. There's self-consciousness about the seeming banality of her disposition — many people are raised by single parents — but it also becomes a rather significant part of the narrative towards the final act of the film.
We're also only given a brief glimpse of Laney during her functional phase (when she's pulling cocaine out of her maxi pads after her family is asleep) before the specificities of addiction are vividly detailed. Some additional context for familial normalcy — beyond her confusedly advising her son to dry his balls post-shower lest he get a rash — could have added some complexity and contradictory family dynamics, enriching things further.
Still, I Smile Back is an achievement in tone and form, refusing to break tension, make justifications or impose societal outrage on a situation and a person that's often categorized without a great deal of greater consideration. Silverman also demonstrates a shrewdness and honesty in her performance; it's not easy to juxtapose regret and familial love with the unapologetic indulgence of her actions without glamourizing. But, even towards the end, when we learn that Bruce Springsteen fans really don't enjoy giving rimjobs, she embraces the unflattering and devastating rawness of an addict without hesitation.
(Search Engine Films)