Gutsy Turn from Sarah Silverman in ‘I Smile Back’

CHICAGO – In an unrelenting and unflinching portrayal, comedian Sarah Silverman makes her case as a dramatic actress in the difficult-to-watch I Smile Back. Based on a novel – with the source author Amy Koppelman also writing the screenplay – the film delves into mental imbalance and the environmental triggers that add to it. Despite all outward signs of normalcy, the character that Silverman takes on is a truly desperate soul, and she folds into those desperations with harsh self loathing. I Smile Back has been released on DVD and is available for digital download through Broad Green Pictures.

Films based on characters with mental conditions are surfacing of late, and reflects an American culture that is buried in overwhelming responsibilities, combined with a pharmaceutical system that readily prescribes psychotropic “hope.” Both are present in the film, but it’s obvious that Silverman’s character is struggling with a deeper psychosis. The examination is deep, and the performances surrounding Silverman are uniformly excellent, even down to a pick up in a bar that is one of her bad decisions. Although the pacing is a bit slow and the downward spiral really hard to take, Silverman was fearless in her ability to interpret the role correctly.

Image: Broad Green Pictures

Image: Broad Green Pictures

When we are introduced to Laney Brooks (Silverman), we see a woman on the brink of breakdown. She is barely tending to her responsibilities, which include two children (Skylar Gaertner and Shayne Coleman) and her dutiful husband Bruce (Josh Charles). She is doing drugs – both prescription and illegal – and is having an affair with a family friend (Thomas Sadoski).

When she ends up on the floor of her daughter’s bedroom, she agrees to check into rehab. Dr. Page (Terry Kinney) gets her to reveal that she is angry at a father who abandoned her at an early age, which seems to be the trigger for her mental imbalance. After completing the rehab, a trip upstate with her husband – and a visit to that absent father (Chris Sarandon) – is the origin for a new phase in her condition.

Silverman has to carry the film like a ten ton weight. She performs virtually every emotion associated with a nervous breakdown and semi-recovery, and has to nuance those transitions through the character’s sad self doubt. It is a remarkable and notable piece of acting, never showy or self absorbed. Silverman knew how to attack the role and delivered Laney with real warts, unafraid to do nudity, have angry/sorrowful sex and vacuum up a self-ingested pharmacy chest full of drugs.

Having the source novel author Koppelman adapt the screenplay (with Paige Dylan) had to help both Silverman’s performance and the atmosphere that director Adam Salky created for Laney’s path. That includes not only the bad stuff of breakdown, but the domestic duties of motherhood. The happy times were the stiffest in Silverman’s interpretation, but that also could have been a function of Laney’s lack of ability to understand happiness. The fact that the story is so harsh is unusual in an American film, and the production delivers that harshness without apology.

Image: Broad Green Pictures

Image: Broad Green Pictures

Since the whole story is so dark, the pacing gets a little slow and unnerving, even for a film that clocks in at about 85 minutes. In any examination of mental instability, especially in situations or people we recognize, it becomes difficult to maintain a proper distance when watching this film. If the enemy of Laney is the collapse of her American dream, then we’ve met that enemy and it is us. But also the film can serve as a reminder that no matter how dark the days, there also can exist the potential to search for a glimmer of light.

It will be interesting to see if Sarah Silverman will go on with a dramatic path in selecting acting roles. Certainly she should consider it and be considered for these roles, apart from her comic persona, in deference to the performance she gives in providing Laney with an all-too-familiar humanity.

Broad Green Pictures presents I Smile Back, now on DVD and available for digital download. See providers for download availability. Featuring Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman, Thomas Sadoski and Chris Sarandon. Screenplay adapted by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman, from Koppelman’s novel. Directed by Adam Salky. Rated “R”