Sundance 2015: Sarah Silverman is Award Worthy in 'I Smile Back'
by Ethan Anderton
February 2, 2015
Independent cinema is where some actors go to defy expectations and try roles outside of their comfort zone. You'll find dramatic stars trying out small comedies, and big comedians putting on their best serious face. With I Smile Back, an adaptation of Amy Koppelman's book of the same name, we get the latter. But this isn't just a gimmick of a raunchy comic trying to get dark just for shock value as Sarah Silverman steps into the lead role with flying colors, delivering a brutal, relentless depiction of addiction and sadness as a mother struggling with substance abuse everyday, popping pills, snorting coke and chugging vodka.
Silverman is anything but happy as upper class housewife as Laney, whose fluctuation between depression and faux happiness is immediately unsettling and worrisome. She goes from having a bleak conversation on life after having adulterous, cocaine-fueled sex with a married friend (Thomas Sadoski) to goofing around with her kids at the dinner table. But she's not exactly keeping it together all that easily, forgetting the new parking system at school as well as her parental identification card, which she needs if she wants to walk her kids to class. This is just the beginning of an inevitable downfall for this addict.
I Smile Back really packs a punch, and it doesn't give you much recovery time between the hits that keep on coming. It's certainly one-the-nose and a little too heavy-handed at times, but when it comes to a character like Laney, that's exactly what addiction is like for her and her loved ones. Some of the sexuality in the film seems misplaced and unnecessary, but it's the recklessness of Laney's actions that make an impact. At first Silverman's well-known comedic persona makes some of the more serious material awkward and harder to swallow, but soon that all washes away as you fall down the drug and alcohol laden rabbit hole with her.
While director Adam Salky has put together a solid character portrait here, at times the film as a whole borders on melodrama, especially when we learn of Laney's abandonment issues caused by her estranged father. Moments with Laney's husband (Josh Charles) sometimes feel lifted from a Lifetime movie, while others are pulled off magnificently. It's a mixed bag of drama that doesn't always hit its mark, but when it does, it's ruthless, unmerciful and potent.
It's the strength of Silverman's lead performance that keeps the film engrossing and hard-hitting even when it borders and being hokey in the drama department. Sarah Silverman is undeniably award worthy with this lead performance that will shatter any preconceived notions you have of her abilities as an actress. It's a breakthrough role that shows that Silverman has powerful dramatic acting chops and is much more than just a comedienne. Silverman puts in an unsparing turn as this dark, troubled character, and don't be surprised if she ends up being part of the awards season buzz late in the year.
I Smile Back is harsh and unforgiving in its illustration of addiction and sorrow. It's bleak and dreary, almost to a fault, sometimes opting for the easy heartstring pull that diving deeper into the darkness of this flawed parent. The film as a whole isn't entirely remarkable, but Silverman lifts it up. The film is a huge step up from director Adam Salky's previous efforts on the dramatic feature Dare, but there's still some fat that can be trimmed when it comes to hammy drama. At its best, this a solid showcase for Silverman that will turn heads and mark a career turning point for the actress.