Overall: A suburban mother of two suffers from increasing bouts of uncontrollable depression, social anxiety, and drug dependency as she struggles to come to terms with a life in a near-constant state of dissolution. Broad Green Pictures; 2015; Rated R; 86 Minutes.
Purgatory in Suburbia: Throughout I Smile Back lurks a certain universal terror regarding the complacency found in familial stability that leads to a certain inescapable emotional stagnancy. Laney (Sarah Silverman) and her well-to-do and predominantly stable insurance salesman husband Bruce (Josh Charles) at times give the outward appearance of the idyllic American Pastoral. But lurking underneath their neat and tidy family of four resides a certain inner hell that wreaks havoc in unseen and unpredictable ways. Laney’s inability to get beyond the childhood trauma inflicted by the inexplicable departure of her father from her life thirty years ago results in her uncontrollable cocaine and alcohol addictions, both of which lead to promiscuous behavior with a string of male suitors, and a general slew of bad behavior. Despite her opulent lifestyle, loving husband, and adoring children, Laney becomes trapped in a purgatory of the middle class not all that alien from anyone who has spent any amount of time in a similar setting of relative economic stability.
Everything Is Not Going To Be Okay: At the heart of director Adam Salky’s stirring drama lies the Silverman, an alternative comedian who at times plays the persona of a naïve naïf who is entirely without regard for the true nature of living as an autonomous and mature adult. In Salky’s film, however, Silverman turns heads in her grappling with a form of depression viscerally felt and emotively lent on screen, turning the table on any of her remaining naysayers who might still wish to put Silverman’s individual talent into a descriptive box of their own making, her performance one that not only remarks on the relentless turpitudes of life, but acknowledges them as having a deep impact on her own person and character. Silverman explores a narrative territory wherein everything is not going to be okay for her character, and through the dramatic power and ability of her performance subscribes the synonymous vicissitudes of her own life and ours, which makes the film so compelling and absolutely necessary as a viewing experience.
No Exit: Perhaps the only shortcoming of Salky’s cinematic adaptation of screenwriter Amy Koppelman’s intense portraiture of contemporary depression in suburban relief is its negation of any defined solutions to the social despondency that it so vividly depicts. In trying to encapsulate all of the power of the film as a whole, Jean-Paul Sartre’s seminal existentialist play No Exit comes to mind. As Sartre concluded in 1944, “Hell is other people,” a sentiment that it would be easy to see Laney making in Salk’s drama, with Koppleman’s script a seeming exercise in response to the shallow and unmoving forces of others not quite as willing to acknowledge their own impersonal natures. Time and time again, Laney tries to engage with a peer group that feels insubstantial, only to be rebuffed by a coterie of artificial seeming friends and erstwhile confidants, whose respective inabilities to emote and sympathize lack any catharsis or symbiotic understanding of their own cooperative inability to connect.
Overall: Salk, Koppleman, and Silverman all come together to offer an independent drama that examines middle class depression in a way that is deeply felt and emotionally resonant, even if it offers no further resolution for its timeless dilemma.