Sarah Silverman’s ‘I Smile Back’ is a frustrating and heartbreaking experience

No problem may be more common problem in the world of indie films than movies with thin plots and great performances. The resulting product is always met with mixed reception, largely because no one feels entirely one way about the picture. They love parts of the art, but not the art as a whole, and it’s that wishy-washy perception that ultimately leads to many great performances being largely overlooked until the eventually debut in the overcrowded world of premium streaming services.

This is the problem at the center of I Smile Back, the latest film from director Adam Salky. While the lead performance from Sarah Silverman is one of the best to be seen on the big screen in 2015, the rest of film runs surprisingly thin. You hang on every word Silverman delivers and every move she makes, but you begin to feel the length of the narrative long before the 85-minute runtime completes. It’s not that anything on screen is particularly bad, but you’re left wanting much more than you’re given. There is something to be said for open-ended storytelling, but in the case of I Smile Back the narrative and supporting characters are so restrained that the story sometimes feels as though it’s fighting through muck in its attempts to move forward. You never know where things will go, and you’re not sure the people behind the film are either.

What’s worse is that a story with as heartbreaking and arguably largely untapped as the one in I Smile Back should have no problem being a more engaging film. Audiences follow Laney Brooks, a married women with two children who does whatever she wants. She takes a number of drugs without her family’s knowledge, sleeps with a variety of men and disappears from any situation she doesn’t like in a moment’s notice. Her inability to control her impulses has pushed her family to the limit, and the majority of the story follows Laney’s attempt at turning over a new life. It’s not one she wants to start necessarily, but she knows it’s the only way to keep her family, which in her mind is the only thing tethering her to reality.

You’ve seen tales of redemption and drug abuse before, but Laney’s journey is undeniably unique. Her struggle feels real from the first moment she appears onscreen, and her self-induced isolation from the outside world permeates throughout every scene. She lacks the ability to interact with everyday society, and this eventual realization only further fuels her desire to find an escape, no matter how temporary it may be. I Smile Back captures the highs and lows of this journey with unflinching sense of realism that will no doubt drive many to tears (as it should).

Silverman has delivered convincing dramatic turns in the past, but I Smile Back is the first time she is front and center. Her performance as Laney is bold and unforgettable, displaying a wide range of talent the famed comedienne has never previously been given a platform to showcase. She’s supported by admirable turns from the likes of Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski, Chris Sarandon and Terry Kinney, but her character is the only one given any real depth. The film is so fiercely focused on her individual human experience that the supporting players feel more like bowling alley bumpers than accompaniments, existing solely to keep the narrative moving in a particular direction. It’s a missed opportunity on multiple accounts to create a far more interesting universe, and it ultimately impacts the quality of the film.

Shortcomings aside, I Smile Back is a compelling story that is worth at least one viewing. The film itself may fade from memory, but Silverman’s turn as Laney Brooks will resonate with indie film fans for years to come. It’s a shame the rest of the production is not on par with her performance. If it were, I honestly believe this film could be one of the year’s great dramatic features, but as it is, I Smile Back’s success will depend almost entirely on word of mouth.