‘I Smile Back’
Director:
Adam Salky
Stars: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Is “I Smile Back” a standard-issue Sundance addiction drama saved by a great lead performance — which is also, of course, a Sundance cliche? Or is it a darker look at isolation in the language of a standard-issue Sundance addiction drama? Which one you choose can depend on the scene. It stumbles back and forth between feeling like an empathetic, even nightmarish look at Laney (Sarah Silverman), a stay-at-home-mom with a coke, pills and booze problem, and feeling like it’s just ticking the boxes. Even when it’s doing the latter it can go far, as well as weird. Laney’s arguable low point, reached in the first not the last act, is when she gets smashed and high, stumbles into her daughter’s room and uses a teddy bear to masturbate, all while a child sleeps two feet away.

Some of Laney’s other transgressions wreak of a pamphlet, if not Lifetime. She’s banging a family friend (Thomas Sadoski) while the kids are at school. She sometimes settles for strangers. She downs some vodka and cusses out her son’s teacher over the phone. She goes into rehab, and when she emerges, we count the seconds till she backslides. Her problems are even conveniently explained (away) by an estranged father (Chris Sarandon), who skipped out on her and her mom when she was a kid — not to mention a businessman husband (Josh Charles), who errs on the emotionally remote, passive-aggressive side. And of course, there’s the usual horrors of suburban life, which is of course claustrophobic and stifling.

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It’s tempting to write “I Smile Back” off as routine, but it’s also tempting to forgive the predictable plot turns and degradations and see it as a subjective portrait of despair. It doesn’t just present Laney’s fairly basic ailments; it gets them. And it makes you feel what it’s like to be her. She’s not just struggling with substance abuse, but also with mere existence. She’s either wigged-out or bottom-of-the-barrel; when she’s not self-prescribing and making terrible choices, she’s hopeless about life, which seems dull and unwanted. You can sense someone who’s tragically smart, who sees through the crap of life — through the tedium of suburban life, through the dumb-sounding book her tool of a husband is working on, through the airs people put on at dinner parties. Life may have once seemed wide-open, but now it’s narrow. She may love her kids, but she also clearly hates being a mother and being an adult — unpopular, even unlikable opinions that few generic addiction sagas would feel comfortable foisting on their hero.

The source is a novel by Amy Koppelman, who also co-wrote the script, and it was written in tortured first-person. Stripped of language, Laney’s plight can seem stock. That the film version mostly rises above it is due to the tag team of director and star, who don’t try to replicate Koppelman’s prose but instead find new ways to attack the story in a different medium. In the opening filmmaker Adam Salky dices up the editing with flashbacks and flashforwards; sometimes he ladles on a score borrowed from a thriller. He keeps perilously close to his character, not just with the camera but with the way it’s presented. If she frenzied, it’s frenzied; if she’s down, it’s down.

Silverman is, of course, a comic playing straight — yet another Sundance trope. (She has done this before: she stole "Take This Waltz" from Michelle Williams as someone trying to recover from alcoholism, not alcoholism and drugs.) But if Silverman doesn’t crack jokes, she’s still coming from the same general, pessimistic place. “I don’t see why anyone bothers loving anything,” she casually blurts out early on. It’s a line that could almost be in a Silverman stand-up special, though she delivers it with such deep-seated weariness that it’s like watching Silverman’s shtick turned inside out. (Although however Laney bad gets, she’s never as evil as Silverman’s stage character.) She makes Laney’s problems, rote they may be, visceral and truly felt. 

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge