Laney (Sarah Silverman) is the perfect wife to Bruce (Josh Charles) and perfect mom to Eli (Skylar Gaertner) and Janey (Shayne Coleman). She’s a nurturing, loving woman, but she’s also got a raging addiction to anything in sight: sugar, booze, pills, coke, sex, anything she can get her hands on. It’s clear that as much love as she has for her kids (and Silverman has great chemistry with them), there are also deep wells of rage within her that send her into flaming-out downward spirals. Silverman plays Laney with a dead-eyed, twitchy ferocity, and her performance is at once horrifying in its reality and morbidly compelling in her rampant self-destructiveness.
At first, "I Smile Back" feels a bit like a very well-shot episode of “Intervention,” and the inciting incident that eventually sends her to rehab is rather ridiculous, but boy, does Silverman sell it. The majority of the film takes place after Laney returns from rehab, focusing on her struggles to be the perfect wife and mother, while also dealing with the anger and trauma from her abandonment by her father. Silverman is completely riveting as she tries and flails to do right, and her physical performance is remarkable: a change in her gait or expression signals the switch in her personality from human to addict. She courts danger, seeking out triggering events that will drive her to the booze and sex and drugs to numb the pain.
Laney is relentlessly self-destructive, but also desperate to show love to her kids. She relates to children much better than adults, avoiding most women, and only able to connect with men through sex. Her daddy issues come through loud and clear, and the film gestures toward the generational cycles of substance abuse. It also deals with the stifling gendered expectations and roles that Laney clearly feels the need to escape, but in which she also takes great comfort, for better or for worse. She hides in her femininity and sexuality, using it as a crutch, playing either Madonna or whore because she doesn’t want to play herself.
The film, directed by Adam Salky, is shot in a crisp and clear light-saturated style, smooth and sophisticated, and capturing all the beautiful upper-middle class trappings that cannot satisfy Laney. The score switches from propulsive percussive beats when Laney’s addict comes out, to lilting chimes that tread a shade too close to uneasy. Josh Charles is typically fantastic as her ever-suffering husband, blending the protective nobility and savage exasperation that Bruce feels.
The screenplay, by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman, is adapted from Koppelman’s novel, and they wrote the lead role with Silverman in mind. There are a few details that the film understandably avoids, like Laney’s history with drugs. However, there are a few things left to wonder about, like why isn’t this lady in some NA or AA meetings? Or, why doesn’t she have a job? Or see a therapist after rehab? The story isn’t perfect, including the shocking antics of the first act, but Silverman’s performance absolutely overcomes that. She is so devastatingly bleak at times that it’s bone-chilling. Everyone hates predicting things like this so early, but with the right distributor and marketing, she could be in awards contention and absolutely would deserve it.
“I Smile Back” is a showcase for Silverman’s considerable prowess as a dramatic lead actress, and any story problems in the film are eclipsed by her tremendous performance. She’s so completely raw while also conveying the numbness and shape-shifting abilities of an addict. It’s one of the darkest portraits of human desperation and destruction seen in some time. [B+]