I Smile Back: Lady in Blue, by David Bax
Adam Salky’s I Smile Back is a supremely depressing movie, not because it’s the story of a woman battling depression but because of what it has to say about the disease itself. The message the film imparts about mental illness is a troubling one but it would seem to be intentionally so. By the standards of being a well made movie that achieves what it set out to achieve, I Smile Back can be marked down as a qualified success.
Sarah Silverman stars as Laney, a suburban housewife whom we meet in the midst of a tailspin of depression and drug abuse, snorting cocaine in the bathroom while her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles) plays basketball with their two children in the driveway of their sizable home. We will soon learn that this is a relapse and the remainder of the film charts Laney’s attempts to overcome her illnesses and demons.
To the extent that I Smile Back works, it’s almost entirely due to Silverman. Though she played a similar role in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz a few years ago, this is by far her most substantial non-comedic performance and she nails it. That’s not to say she doesn’t earn a few laughs along the way; Laney inviting another mother to go fuck herself for telling Laney’s son that Thanksgiving is a lie is both hilarious and satisfying. (In the category of unintentional laughs, however, every time someone calls her Laney, it sounds like “lady,” which is especially funny in a scene where, say, her husband is interrogating her about her lack of interest in sex.) Silverman pulls off some pretty turgid material by avoiding actorly sturm und drang and opting instead for humanism. Salky might be making a movie about depression and addiction but Silverman is making one about Laney. Charles is good, too, as the understanding-to-a-point husband but his role remains a minor one, as does that of the always welcome Chris Sarandon in what amounts to a cameo as Laney’s long-estranged father. Again, though, this is Silverman’s showcase and she makes the most of it, selling Laney’s increasingly reckless behavior with a relatable weariness that barely masks an inner rage at the world and, mostly, at herself. She also turns in what has to be among the most heartbreaking and unsettling masturbation scenes in cinema history.
If Silverman is the strongest arrow in I Smile Back’s quill, the score by Zack Ryan is the weakest. With its endless, plaintive droning, it seems to be instructing the viewer on how to feel. If the music had lyrics, they would probably just be descriptions of whatever is on the screen at the time.
It’s not as if Salky needed a melancholy score to bum people out, anyway. The film’s message should be able to do that all on its own. Hinted at in therapy sessions with a psychiatrist (Terry Kinney, very good) and then teased out further with Sarandon’s eventual appearance, I Smile Back seems to be arriving at the conclusion that mental illness is hereditary and that there’s nothing you can do about it. Though the conspicuous wealth of Laney’s family and her massive SUV are a poignant reminder that no one is safe from this sort of disease, the hopelessness on display is sour and disrespectful to the many who fight bountifully for their own mental health every day.
Still, you can’t say that Salky isn’t committed to the story he’s telling and what he means to say with it. Therein lies the difficulty in parsing the film. I Smile Back is, according to the goals it set itself, a successful movie. But is that the same as being a good one?