It would be a gross understatement to say that I Smile Back is a bit of a downer. The film covers depression, drug use, and childhood trauma, among other things. The story itself is fairly straightforward, but it’s the main performance that makes the experience worthwhile: Sarah Silverman commits completely to an extremely challenging character.
Laney Brooks (Silverman) is a Long Island housewife and mother of two. Her successful husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), is crazy about her; her kids, Eli (Skylar Gaerter) and Janey (Shayne Coleman), are adorable; and she lives in a beautiful North Shore mansion. From the outside, Laney’s life looks pretty perfect, but she’s miserable. Her depression, which she’s been dealing with for years, is out of control, and she relies on pills, alcohol, cocaine, and extramarital relationships to keep from falling off the edge. This includes sleeping with her family friend Donny (Thomas Sadoski), who claims to be in love with her. Laney’s also overly anxious about the happiness and safety of her kids. While the substance abuse certainly doesn’t help, it becomes obvious that she’s terrified Eli and Janey will inherit her mental health issues and that they’ll be affected by her melancholy.
After a series of escalating events, some peripherally involving her children, Laney breaks down, and Bruce quickly sends her off to rehab (he has dealt with this all before). She’s resistant at first, but she truly wants to go home to her family so she gives in to therapy and gets back on medication. She opens up about her childhood to her therapist, Dr. Page (Terry Kinney), specifically about her father leaving when she was nine, a trauma that hasn’t left her and that hasn’t been helped by the complete lack of communication with her dad for decades.
It’s horrifying to watch Laney struggle to get her life together and constantly fail. The audience moves between disgust at and sympathy for her. Though the narrative is simple, Laney is a complex character, so much so that viewers will be left with the feeling that there was even more going on under the surface that wasn’t touched on. That’s testament to Silverman’s performance. Her interactions with the children are also especially touching: Laney is a devoted mother whose depression engulfs her life. As the frustrated husband, Charles delivers a subtle performance that balances Silverman’s destructive Laney.
The cinematography adds to the dark atmosphere; the starkness of the winter setting lends to an effective backdrop. As stated above, the film doesn’t deal out any shocking twists, but its performances ground the film in a way that’s shocking in their realistic portrayal.