Only Natural, by Rita Cannon
Daniel Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces opens with a haunting, wordless image: a close-up of a snake on a muddy riverbed, jaws distended, slowly swallowing a another creature. It’s not quite clear what the creature is (a fish? A salamander?), how long the snake has been working on it, or how much longer it might take to finish. The rest of the film is almost completely comprised of moments like this one – small, intimate scenes focused on the primal (nature, death, the intersection thereof). Like the scene of the snake, they don’t always have a clear context or connection to one another, but they’re no less arresting for that fact.
The film exists in fragments, but it’s anchored by two powerful lead performances from Nathan Varnson and Ryan Jones as Eric and Tommy, a pair of adolescent brothers whose lives are turned upside down by the sudden death of Tommy’s friend Ian. Ian apparently fell from a bridge, and while there’s no evidence to suggest that it wasn’t an accident, his father’s behavior is just strange enough to make one wonder if there might be more to the story. That said, Hide Your Smiling Faces is not a murder mystery. One of its most compelling qualities is its refusal to even try to answer the audience’s questions about what happened to Ian. Instead, it devotes itself to documenting the ripples his death causes in the lives of the kids who knew him. Newly aware of their own mortality, Eric, Tommy, and their friends all have different reactions to the tragedy, but they all follow a basic pattern of moving right up to the edge of something terrifying before backing away at the last second. I lost track of how many horrific things almost happen; the rule of Chekhov’s gun has never been disregarded to such great dramatic effect.
Carbone’s decision to elide the details of Ian’s death is as effective in terms of theme as it is in plot. It’s a film about loss of innocence, and about coming to terms not only with the fact that terrible things can happen without warning, but also that much if the time, nothing about what happened will make any real sense. It has its share of sadness, as any film about the death of a child should. But the more potent emotion, the one we really find ourselves swimming in by the time the credits roll, is one much more characteristic of adulthood than childhood: aching uncertainty.