Well, here we are again. A movie about an upper-middle class white suburbanite whose life appears normal on the surface, but masks something much darker. While dismissing I Smile Back (2015)—the newest incarnation of this story—based on its genre and use of related tropes would be petty, I can’t help but sigh when I see another one of these stories. It’s incredibly important to discuss the stigma of mental illness, the difficulties of addiction, and the damage caused by the forced civility of suburbia. It’s even more important to discuss the ways in which we shame mothers for trying to come to terms with any of these, with the implication being that they’ve failed as women simply for being humans who don’t live up to a societal standard of maternity.
But when do we cross the line from being an important and engaging story to being exploitative? Is it when the 20th or 30th movie comes out with the same stock characters? Well, no. My second article ever for this website was on Take This Waltz, a movie that deals with the issue of love and sexuality in a similar context, but with insight that’s never been captured by those 30+ predecessors. Maybe there’s something about adding in the issue of mental illness that makes things infinitely more difficult. Actually, I’d bank on that.
I’ve somewhat described the movie’s protagonist, Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman), by way of describing the tropes that constitute her character. Yet, it’d be unfair of me to say that she is nothing more. The troubled mother clearly loves her family, but is so consumed by her illness (which appears to be some form of bipolar or obsessive compulsive disorder) that she has to numb herself with drugs. She smothers her kids, who laughingly ask her to stop when she says things to them like, “I don’t deserve to be your mother.” The whole lifestyle that she has to live is clearly not a good fit for her, and it pressures her to be someone she isn’t. But ultimately, she cannot escape her self-destructive tendencies.
There are mountains of nuance to the character, in a sense, but they don’t come from the script. They come from Silverman’s performance, which confirms the acting chops she presented in Take This Waltz (and surely has in her other roles). While Silverman is able to add a sense of conflict and troubled self-evaluation to her character with body language, ultimately the heart she puts into her character is at odds with the script itself. I Smile Back fails to escape one of the most inherent issues of this type of movie: that it is, at heart, misery tourism. If a traditional narrative drama is centered around a character’s attempts to get her life together, the tension often defaults on the dangers that she will relapse. Conflict is the essence of a lot of narratives, but when you make the conflict arise from the potential that the character’s life won’t get better (rather than, say, the ways in which they come to understand themselves through these issues, as in Take This Waltz), then you predicate audience engagement on the protagonist’s suffering. Making the viewer sad because of all the misery is at odds with the way the movie engages with its viewers, ultimately manipulating their emotions with none of the dramatic heft to validate them.
These kinds of movies get a small rise out of me now, because they are effective. I care about Laney. Every abuse she faces, every moment that she suffers, I feel for her. I want her to get the help she needs and to find the lifestyle that works for her. But I know that the movie’s narrative pull is that she won’t. I see the director, Adam Salky, and screenwriters, Paige Dylan & Amy Koppelman, dangling any sense of happiness just out of reach. And while avoiding a happy ending (or happiness in general) isn’t inherently wrong, it is wrong to make your movie feel like an affront to white, upper-middle class suburban values, when in reality it simply puts on a facade with tropes in the same way it criticizes those who put on a face with false civility. Laney suffers because it’s what she’s designed to do, and it takes a lot more skill and subtlety than that exhibited by Salky, Dylan, and Koppelman to make that design effective rather than sadistic.
Salky, Dylan, and Koppelman show flashes of that skill, though. Salky’s direction is impressive because he can evoke an array of moods within the same suburban home just by playing with camera angles and ambient sound. From a fleeting moment of joy captured with subtle lighting, to a moment of drugged horror, Salky knows how to capture the scene. Dylan and Koppelman find moments of lucidity despite all of the stereotypical filler, such as this conversation, which really struck a chord:
Laney: I hate upstate.
Bruce (her husband): No you don’t. You just hate your dad.
Laney: I think I hate both. Can I hate both?
The sheer humanity of this conversation is overwhelming in its simplicity. That moment, where the two characters smile because they’ve successfully navigated how to communicate, is real and powerful. But when you contrast that with the rest of the movie, which is drowned in heavy-handedness, these moments are just that: moments. The cliche symbolism of a son relating his dream where his mom can’t hear him because she has headphones in and then DIES!!! is…well, I think you get it. While the semi-cyclical structure of Laney’s ups and downs allows for more subtlety and quiet moments like the upstate conversation, the structure is ultimately used to beat into our heads messages that we’ve heard too many times before.
I Smile Back is by no means a terrible movie. If you haven’t seen many in the genre, then it’s a harrowing experience that will open you up to some questions that you need to be aware of, such as, “How do we (mis)understand mental illness?” or “Is this lifestyle imposed upon women who do not find it satisfying, and thus inherently limiting?” But due to the cliche and redundant nature of the story, these questions ring as hollow as the words of any Stepford Smiler. Laney is a person that it’s important to spend some time with; it’s just a shame that she cannot escape the confines of a script that would rather bash her head against a wall than allow her to grow.