PARK CITY – The Sundance Film Festival giveth, and the Sundance Film Festival taketh away…85 minutes of your evening. Those are the breaks when it comes to any major festival and, unfortunately, “I Smile Back” falls into the latter category. That may sound a tad harsh, but Adam Salky's latest is a disappointing effort that is the one film that truthfully doesn't belong in the U.S. Dramatic Competition this year.
[It's worth noting there are usually two or three films that the Sundance faithful wonder why they've been selected for competition, so just one means it's been quite a good year overall.]
In many ways, “Smile Back” feels like a film that would have been at Sundance 10 to 15 years ago. It centers on Laney (Sarah Silverman), a stay-at-home mom living in a gorgeous house in either Connecticut or upstate New York (either works) who has two beautiful kids and, seemingly, a wonderful husband, Bruce (Josh Charles). In reality, however, Laney isn't entirely with it. She forgets her ID to allow her to walk her kids to their classrooms and keeps trying to sneak her way out of having to park when returning to school to pick them up. We soon discover her problems stem from alcoholism and drug abuse. Oh, she's also having an affair with a family friend (Thomas Sadoski) and Bruce seems somewhat oblivious to all of it. That is until he discovers she hasn't been taking her lithium pills to keep her balanced and has been hiding drugs and vodka in different parts of their home.
Predictably, she's sent to rehab, where counseling reveals a good portion of her pain comes from the fact her father left her at the age of nine. “He never called,” and 30 years later, she still wonders why he abandoned her family. And that, is the gist of the movie.
For such a straightforward story, Salky and screenwriters Paige Dylan and Amy Koppleman make some strange creative decisions. Why does it appear as though none of the women in the movie have jobs and are all stay-at-home wives? Why does Laney cheat on Bruce in the first place? Is she just bored? Wouldn't that have been something more interesting to explore than just focusing primarily on the drug addiction? Why would they let the film seemingly fall so easily into the trappings of a “rich white people” problems movie? Especially for a story we've seen numerous times before in different media. It's all so puzzling.
That aside, Salky and the producers have done their best to recruit some fine actors to surround Silverman with including Charles and Sadoski. Unfortunately, the former “Good Wife” star, who was great in last year's Cannes selection “Bird People,” has little to color Bruce with here. There seems to be something missing from his character and you wonder if something got lost in production. Sardonski at least has a more active character in Donny, who is clearly obsessed with Laney and even willing to leave his pregnant wife for her. He has much less screen time than Charles, but at least Donny feels more tangible.
If there is any saving grace in “Smile Back,” it's Silverman's fierce commitment to her performance. She gets roughed up, isn't afraid to expose herself physically and emotionally and she elevates the script when it really needs it (which is fairly often). In particular, she's quite effective in the numerous scenes that possibly foreshadow Laney losing her children (no, that's not a spoiler). It's high praise to say Silverman proves she's on a shortlist of actresses who could at least make Laney compelling to watch.
No one who sees “I Smile Back” will question if Silverman was right for the role, they will simply question whether this was a story that needed to be told in the first place.