If you’ve never felt deep depression or anxiety, “I Smile Back” is like a safari of despair. To your left, you will see a woman falling apart on the bathroom floor, to your right, a son suffering from anxiety, a family falling apart. Behind and ahead are daddy issues, drug addiction. Reckless and joyless sex as self-medication and is that a possible eating disorder, right behind that tree?
“I Smile Back” is not an emotional roller coaster. Nothing is unpredictable, or surprising — the suicide attempt doesn’t leave you gasping at the edge of your seat. Instead, you feel there, in the heart of it.
No, this movie, based on the 2008 Amy Koppelman novel of the same title, does not offer an enjoyable viewing experience. It’s the story of Laney, a suburban housewife who “has everything.” You know, the perfectly successful husband (a salesman AND a writer!), two beautiful kids, a big suburban home and a life altering mental disorder. You know, that kind of everything.
The movie’s soundtrack, audible yet muted, is depression’s distinctive din. It is eloquently portrayed. You will not hear violins here or a dramatic orchestra. Instead there are a lot of booming silences that leave you squirming at your seat.
Laney is always on the brink of a breakdown. “It’s not that she’s dead inside – it’s that she feels too much,” Sarah Silverman told Terry Gross in an interview. And that’s true. Laney loves her kids too much. She loves her husband too much, and it makes her anxious and terrifying.
So anxious and terrifying that her son has nightmares and starts to exhibit OCD behavior. Is it out of concern for her? Or is it hereditary? The answer is, perhaps, a combination of the two.
The important take-away from this movie, aside from the insight into what depression feels like, is that there is no easy fix for it. Laney’s husband, a loving and present partner and father” just “wants her to be happy” but that goal is a fit for someone in the midst of depression.
Sarah Silverman’s stellar performance is anything but a surprise. She brings the same determination and almost painful intensity to anything she does and this role is no different. If there’s one thing this movie has made me long for, it’s more dramatic performances from her.
The cast also includes Josh Charles (“Dead Poet Society”, “The Good Wife”) as Laney’s spouse, Bruce, who plays the perfect husband, well, perhaps a bit too perfectly. Young Skylar Gaertner as Laney’s haunted son is also a revelation.
But “I Smile Back” has many flaws, and they’re hard to ignore. There are moments when the dialogue feels stilted and clumsy, like a strange and not very good play rather than this star-studded movie feature. Amy Koppelman and first time screenwriter Paige Dylan wrote the script, and it really does feel like the weakest link. Sometimes, the dialogue draws uncomfortable laughter, but a mostly it just fails to hit the mark or to add anything to this movie.
Perhaps the film’s biggest drawback is how successfully it portrays disassociation. Silverman’s performance is too convincing. The cinematography is so detached and off kilter. I just longed for a line of dialogue or two that would hit the spot, and break the veneer of detachment. I wanted the narrative to, at least once, take me somewhere I didn’t expect to be. Instead, I just felt trapped inside Laney’s head.
It’s hard to feel empathy for someone who has absolutely no compassion for themself.
Lior Zaltzman is the Forward’s Digital Fellow and a wearer of many hats. When she’s not tweeting from the Forward’s account, she’s creating illustrations, graphics and lists for the various Forward blogs. She can also make comics out of your bad dates in #OYDATE. She graduated from the School of Visual Arts with a BFA in cartooning. Lior Zaltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @liorca.