The screenplay for I Smile Back, adapted from Amy Koppelman‘s 2008 novel, was written with actor/comedian Sarah Silverman in mind for Laney, the depressed and and substance-abusing lead character. The comedian, who has suffered bouts of depression and anxiety herself since her teens, just seemed like the right fit.
Koppelman may have been right. As David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter) states, “A gutsy performance by Sarah Silverman — annihilating almost every trace of her comedy persona as her character spirals through one punishing bout of depression, addiction and self-sabotage after another, multiple times redefining rock-bottom — is the chief distinction of Adam Salky‘s I Smile Back.”
“Ultimately,” he adds later about the movie as a whole, however, this all proves “less wrenching than numbing.”
Laney’s married to Bruce (Josh Charles), and they have two young kids, Eli (Skylar Gaertner) and Janey (Shayne Coleman). Scott Foundas, Variety, describes Bruce as “a successful insurance salesman and self-help author who initially seems like such a pompous dolt (he describes his book, hilariously titled ‘Hedging Your Bets Against God,’ as ‘a Bible for the here and now’) that you wonder if he might not be the root of all that ails her.” But he’s not.
Although Laney does go for help, most of the movie occurs in her post-rehab phase.
Portrayal of Mental Health Issues
Scott Foundas, Variety:
…(T)he Laney we meet at the start of ‘I Smile Back’ is already significantly damaged goods, having stopped taking her prescription lithium and slipped back into a series of old, self-destructive habits: cocaine, vodka, amphetamines and torrid afternoon sex with the restaurateur husband (Thomas Sadoski) of a close family friend (Mia Barron)…
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:
The filmmakers keep the roots of Laney’s malaise inexplicit, only scraping the surface in sessions with a shrink (Terry Kinney) during her first stint in rehab. There are abandonment issues stretching back to her father’s exit when she was nine, thereafter remaining incommunicado. And there’s an encroaching fear that loving anybody, her children most of all, means living with the crippling fear of losing them. In more subtle ways, it’s suggested that the privileged complacency of her upper-middle-class environment eats away at her sense of herself.
Katie Walsh, The Playlist: “…(T)here are a few things left to wonder about, like why isn’t this lady in some NA or AA meetings? Or, why doesn’t she have a job? Or see a therapist after rehab?”
Below, a brief clip of Laney speaking with her rehab counselor, Dr. Page:
Scott Foundas, Variety: “There are echoes here of real-life cases like that of Diane Schuler, the Long Island soccer mom who killed eight people while driving under the influence in 2009, and you come away from ‘I Smile Back’ with a better sense of how something like that might happen. It’s there in Silverman’s eyes, which flicker with an exquisite, agonized mixture of pleasure and shame as she plunges once more back into the abyss.”
Jeanette Catsoulis, New York Times: “…a wearying loop of slug-snort-crash that leaves Ms. Silverman out on a ledge and the audience with no way to reach her.”
Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “It feels rushed at 85 minutes and features an abrupt ending that goes beyond intriguingly ambiguous to enormously unsatisfying. Truly, the movie just…ends. But even before that, the narrative consists of an uneven mix of powerful moments and random happenings. Individual scenes can be tense but the arc as a whole lacks momentum. ‘I Smile Back’ should have been devastating. Silverman is willing to take you there. What it ends up being is frustrating.”