I Smile Back (2015)

Director: Adam Salky
Writers: Paige Dylan & Amy Koppelman
Cast: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Billy Magnussen.

I love it when a small movie with a limited budget forgoes all the bells and whistles and allows an actor to just stretch and shine. It’s even better when said actor is either an unknown who suddenly and unexpectedly announces their presence (Vera Farmiga in Down to the Bone, for example). It’s especially fantastic when a much more recognizable face steps into the shoes of a character vastly different than all the previous ones they have inhabited and suddenly shines, forcing the audience to suddenly see them in a completely new light. Anyone who knows me is well aware of my particular obsession with the television show Friends, but that love has not necessarily transferred to the cast’s other ventures, which, let’s face it, have not all been gems. But last year Jennifer Aniston particularly surprised me with her understated and very good performance as a woman coping with pain and trauma in the indie Cake.

Watching I Smile Back I felt a similar feeling. I continuously watched the screen in disbelief that the performance I was watching was by Sarah Silverman. Silverman is a well known and often over the top comedian. I still remember my first time noticing the actress. 12 years ago I went to the movies with my fellow college choir nerds to go see The School of Rock. I did not particularly enjoy the film, but I was extremely put off my the girl who played the friend’s girlfriend. She was loud, in my opinion obnoxious, and I simply could not fathom why anyone would hire her, let alone give her lines in a movie. A couple of years later I came across Silverman’s comedy and standup act, specifically in her movie Jesus Is Magic, and began to see what some of the fuss was about. She could make me laugh. I started to enjoy her humor and comedic style and over the years have appreciated her television show, her book (The Bedwetter), and several appearances and bits she did, like the hilarious video in which she, well, did the deed with Matt Damon.

An actress, though, I never really considered her to be one. At least not a very good one. I must now eat my hat as I write this, because I have been obviously underestimating Sarah Silverman for over a decade. The issue is that she just hadn’t been given the opportunity to show off what she is clearly capable of. That, or she has simply matured over time and it wasn’t until now that she would be capable of such a performance. Either way, this small little movie is a star vehicle for the actress. Not the most memorable or interesting story, nor a particularly well made movie, nonetheless an opportunity for Silverman to act in a beautiful way that I never imagined her capable of.

Silverman plays Laney, a wife and mother of two prone to self destructive behavior, barely holding the multiple strands of her life together. From afar her life appears to be perfect by suburban middle class definitions: a handsome and supportive husband (Josh Charles), two gifted children, a house, a dog, a minivan, a back yard bigger than my apartment. Underneath the veil and gloss of the American dream lies a true darkness. After dropping off the kids at school Laney meets up with a family friend for a session of sex and drugs. Laney is prone to over-drinking, not taking her Lithium, putting herself in dangerous situations, and seems uninterested in self-preservation. Clearly this is not the family’s first time dealing with a spiraling Laney, who seems to have had quite the traumatic upbringing, and soon the mother and wife ends up in rehab. It’s up to Laney to pick up the pieces and do what she can to either save her family and life from the rubble or let it all fade away into oblivion.

The precarious state of her life and the high stakes are what drive the story and have the audience engaged from beginning to end. The viewer is rooting for Laney in spite of her behavior and the merit is all Silverman’s. A lesser actor would have gone over the top in the debauchery, forcing us to simply condemn Laney for her actions, but Silverman’s understated performance and full inhabitation of Laney and her flaws makes us love her so much more than she deserves, just like her family does. We root for her, we are invested in her story, and that is what makes Sarah Silverman a winning actor who has finally showed what she is truly capable of.

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