Adapted from Amy Koppleman’s book of the same name, by Paige Dylan and Koppleman, directed by Adam Salky and starring Sarah Silverman, I Smile Back looks at a suburban familial nightmare of mental illness and addiction. Where one partner suffers from bipolar disorder and opts to self medicate with cocaine, vodka and sex with a variety of partners and objects. The main character, Laney Brooks, is a woman with issues.
Brooks has deep set and disturbing mental abscesses that she fills with an affair, an over abundance of self medication and delusional ramblings. Silverman sells her version of an emotionally immature and mentally ill wife and mother of two. Not having read the source material; Amy Koppleman won raves of approval from literary critics for her book, it is difficult to discern just where Laney’s problems begin.
It is mentioned that her father, played with a mixture of world weariness and a wounded soul by Chris Sarandon, deserted Laney and her mother when she was a small girl. However, it is also brought up, firstly by Laney herself indirectly at a school meeting and later by her father Roger, that her grandmother had issues as well.
I Smile Back seems to be saying that the old mot of money not buying happiness can also apply to its inability to fix mental illness. Laney Brooks is in a relationship where her “provider” and enabler earns very good money. This allows Laney to snort cocaine and drink hidden vodka, while ignoring her prescribed medication.
Silverman’s character also has extra-marital sex, on a regular basis, and seems to be attempting to replicate what she believes to be her father’s past behavior. Things come to a head when she overdoes her drinking and coke snorting after a family meal. After making an abusive call to another parent, she then masturbates with her daughter’s teddy bear on the floor by the bed while the child sleeps.
She goes through a meltdown and her husband sends her to detox at rehab. Part of Laney’s problems stem from the bipolar but the rest appear to be from her lack of focus and refusal to accept culpability for her actions.
Laney “plays” at being mommy while ignoring the realities of parenthood. Later in the film, Eli (played brilliantly by Skylar Gaertner) begins exhibiting compulsive disorder symptoms at home and school. During a parent teacher meeting to discuss a plan of action, Laney blames the problem on her genes.
This is a moving drama filmed with emphasis on the uncomfortable “realities” of living with a loved one who suffers from mental health issues and is addicted to their own self medication. Silverman gives this role her all and does not hesitate to show the pathos under the calm exterior of her character.
There are a few sex scenes that rely less on “in your face” techniques and more on making the act feel real. One scene features sex that turns into an assault as Laney’s world spirals out of control.
I Smile Back is evocative of a “reality” documentary. Interactions are filmed with minimal music, focussing instead on the dialogue and the set’s ambiance. This gives the film a “fly-on-the-wall” feel that is not too overpowering as music is used to an extent to underscore certain scenes.
Overall, this drama has equal amounts of sadness and loss. One gets the feeling that despite the love that Bruce (Josh Charles) and Laney have for one another, their relationship is doomed. Her issues run too deep and Laney continues to deny her true feelings while refusing to take her medication.
The ending is ambiguous; a nod to real life where solutions are not nearly so cut and dried and innocents often suffer from their loved ones problems. Director Salky has given Silverman a chance to show that her unique brand of comedy is not the only thing that this performer has to offer.
Apart from the money not equating to happiness dictum, the film’s other message is that mental illness, or issues like bipolar or depression, is not affected by social status, success or parenthood. The root of Laney’s problem, apart from her manic depressive issue, lies in her inability to “grow up,” she plays at being an adult with severe lapses into the emotional state of a fractured child. Nothing can “take her out of herself” long enough to fix her problems.
I Smile Back is a splendid vehicle for Silverman. It is a bit “heavy” but manages to give a human touch to all the issues faced by the Laney and her family. Not a film to watch if easily depressed but it is a film that should prompt discussion and not a little deep thinking. This is a 4.5 out of 5 star film and Silverman nails it as the woman who is driven to extremes by her inner demons.