In I Smile Back you have written a direct, if unintentional, rebuke to mumblecore bullshit like Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America. Where the latter is coy and hides its arch and ultimately empty purpose behind layers of artifice, I Smile Back just spits it intentions right in your eye.
Sarah Silverman is not high on my list of actresses that I ever expected to admire. But in I Smile Back, Silverman displays the same fearlessness that Charlize Theron so readily employed in 2003’s Monster. There is, however, an ambiguity to Silverman’s performance that is finely tuned. Is she simply someone who suffers from a quiet but profound mental illness? Or has she succumbed to an unrepentant self-indulgence that is only made more unpalatable by her state of cartoonish privilege?
This is a film and a performance that has one thing on its mind—an unsentimental portrayal of just how ugly and existentially empty life can be, even in what seem to be idyllic circumstances. And if that is not necessarily an original concept, the depth and unflinching nature of this film certainly holds it apart from its lesser brethren.
One of the most interesting aspects of a film that is otherwise episodic and choppy—the narrative concerns itself far more with chipping away at the core of Silverman’s character than any specific plot points—is how often the tropes inherent to films about addiction and recovery are subverted. Each time the usual event occurs—reuniting with an absent father or the now clichéd epiphany about how some behaviors are destructive not only to the person engaged in them but to everyone attached to that person—the film turns away from what is expected. Instead we have a scene of a drunken Silverman masturbating on her young daughter’s bedroom floor, while holding a teddy bear. I Smile Back is filled with moments just like that.
The unsettling core of the whole project is the effort made to present Silverman’s illness as part of her character rather than the whole of it. I Smile Back refuses to shift the weight entirely off of the protagonist’s shoulders despite her obvious and very real illness. It is here that the film treads on some dangerous but important ground: it understands that while mental illness is tangible and real there comes a point that whatever the initial circumstance, choices we make often have irrevocable consequences. And that no one, especially when children are involved, has carte blanche—however unfair the circumstances of their existence.
I Smile Back is a vaccination against a particular kind of Oprah-esque, feel-good nonsense that is often employed in portrayals of addiction and depression. It is also a tremendous performance by a woman playing an almost entirely unsympathetic character. Silverman makes a strong case for herself as a modern day female equivalent to Travis Bickle. Both are repugnant and still also caught in the throes of something they can’t really control or understand.
I believe Sarah Silverman would have made John Cassavetes a happy man, and I can’t think of higher praise for an actress. You gave her the raw material to make that hyperbolic praise difficult to refute, Paige, and while I won’t thank you for it, I still respect the hell of out what you both managed to create.