A Review of Adam Salky’s I Smile Back: A Dark and Frustrating Look at Motherhood, Mental Illness, and Addiction


Film: I Smile Back
Director: Adam Salky
Primary Cast: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman, Terry Kinney, Thomas Sadoski, Chris Sarandon, Mia Barron
US Release Date: 6 November 2015

A version of the following review was published by Side B Magazine and can be found on their blog, here.

Laney Brooks (Silverman) is a suburban housewife who would seem to have it all. Both of her kids (Gaertner and Coleman) are well-behaved, her house is more than large enough, and her husband Bruce (Charles) is clearly successful. Laney is wealthy, attractive, and has a picture-perfect family (complete with a son, a daughter, and a family dog). She loves her children (in her own way), and she often seems to want nothing but the best for them. That said, she is far from happy, and she can barely take care of herself—let alone anyone else.

In addition to suffering from severe depression, Laney is also addicted to drugs and to reckless, impulsive, and risky behavior. She recently stopped taking her lithium, she drinks, she does cocaine, she cheats on her husband (both with her friend’s husband and with total strangers), and she often refuses to eat. As much as she might try to hide her illness from her children she is terribly self-destructive and is caught in a dangerous cycle that threatens to destroy her and her family alike.

Directed by Adam Salky (Dare), I Smile Back presents viewers with an intriguing, but unfortunately hollow look at motherhood, mental illness, and addiction. The film was written by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman and is an adaptation of the latter’s 2008 novel. It also features a bold and complex performance from famed comedienne Sarah Silverman. While the film should be praised for its unflinching portrait of that which is often inscrutable, it also lacks enough emotional or narrative depth to warrant repeated viewing. Silverman gives the film her all, but the material lets her down in the end.
Watch I Smile Back on Amazon. 

I Smile Back’s greatest strength lies in Silverman’s performance. Though she has built her career on her comedy, she clearly has what it takes to lead a dramatic film. As Laney, Silverman demonstrates an incredible ability to get into a character’s head and to understand even their darkest corners without totally abandoning the realms of sympathy. She embraces all that is ugly about Laney and her illness, but she doesn’t make the mistake of flattening her or of portraying her as a villain. That said, she isn’t a clear-cut victim either. Instead of shying away from the ambiguity and the difficulty of a figure like Laney, Silverman finds a way to balance the many sides of her and to convey numerous, and even conflicting emotions all at once.

However, while the depths of the darkness that Laney navigates are virtually endless, the film’s story is rather thin and its narrative arc is lamentably flat. Though the ending is noticeably darker than the beginning, I Smile Back doesn’t cover much ground in its 80-minute runtime. It also repeats itself numerous times, is disjointed, and never seems to have a clear picture of where it’s going. Fans of the film might argue that these aspects of its script are in some way meant to reflect the lives and experiences of those struggling with mental illness and addiction, but to do so would be to give Salky, Dylan, and Koppelman too much credit.

Moreover, while Laney is developed enough to come across as a multi-dimensional and realistic human, the same cannot be said for the people around her. I Smile Back supporting characters simply aren’t compelling. The one possible exception is Chris Sarandon as Laney’s estranged father Roger, but he isn’t on screen long enough to do much for the film.

Part of my frustration with I Smile Back stems from the fact that it clearly could have been quite good. Given its subject matter, the depth of Laney’s character, and Silverman’s skill, the film had the potential to be illuminating and devastating. Instead, it’s only mildly distressing and it borders on forgettable. In saying this, I don’t mean to make light of mental illness or of anything that Laney goes through. Those things are clearly tragic, and anyone who reflects on their reality long enough is sure to be upset by them. The problem is that the way the film tells its story is just too loose, too shallow, and too monotonous to make much of an impact.

I Smile Back also had the potential to be more important than it is. It features a woman and mother who suffers from a terrible combination of mental illness and addiction, and it depicts her consequent behavior in a brutal manner. Though it doesn’t make excuses for her behavior, the film also takes Laney seriously, and it presents her with sensitivity and nuance. In light of this, one might expect the film to be noteworthy for its representational achievements. However, even though Laney is a fascinating and layered character, the film that surrounds her does not accomplish enough for this to be the case. Silverman’s work in the film may provide some viewers with more understanding of depression and addiction than they had previously, but those who have already experienced mental illness or who already feel sympathy for those affected by such illness may not find that much to hold on to in I Smile Back.

The fact that the film was written by two women is also worth mentioning. While this in itself is not a reason to praise the film, it is a reason to wish it had been more successful. As unfair as the situation is, films made by, starring, and penned by women frequently fall under harsher scrutiny than others. With this in mind, a small part of me cannot help but worry about the fact that I Smile Back’s script is also its biggest weakness.

As solid as Silverman’s performance is, I Smile Back is pretty meh. Despite its hard-hitting subject matter, the film is too lightweight in its execution. Instead of following its star’s lead and committing to going all the way, much of the film comes up short. I Smile Back is challenging, but only barely so. It’s daring and brutal too, but only in limited doses, and there simply isn’t enough substance behind its script and direction.

Until Next Time.
Thanks so much for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this film! I also saw Room yesterday, so expect a post on that in the near future.

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