Sarah Silverman’s performances usually evoke a few tears, but these are mostly from laughing too hard. Recently, this renowned stand-up comedian brought audiences to tears in a very different way when she starred in the hard-to-watch, but still harder-to-look-away-from film, “I Smile Back.” This film opened in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival.
Just like jumping into a cold pool on one of the first days of summer, the film’s beginning is sudden and shocking. The entire premise of the movie is established in the opening scene where Laney, played by Sarah Silverman, vacantly watches her husband and children playing basketball through the window of her bathroom as she satisfies her cocaine addiction. This depressed, addicted woman starkly contrasts the characters Silverman usually plays.
This new side of the hilarious actress was difficult to watch and even more difficult for her to rediscover. Silverman revealed during interviews that she had struggled with depression when she was younger, which may seem strange for someone who specializes in making others laugh. However, recall that Robin Williams once said, “I think the saddest people try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” Silverman handled her depression and overcame many of its everyday disturbances through comedy. Playing Laney, the antithesis of an easy-going, comedic character, dredged up unpleasant memories and led to a painfully truthful and remarkable performance that normalizes instead of romanticizes or condemns depression.
The film proceeds like an avalanche in which Laney makes one bad decision after another, in some cases influenced by her situation and in others by her poor judgement. Her family, consisting of her husband and two young children, suffer mentally and socially because of her. Though her goal is to clean up her act and become a better wife and mother, she never succeeds. As the adage goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The film never gets better, as one may expect, and in light of this, the film cannot be over until something incredibly awful happens to the protagonist. Initially, one may consider her death as a viable conclusion, but that would be too easy. Continuing the theme of the film, the ending, which I was told not to spoil, provides audiences with a conclusion, but no resolution.
Once one figures out that this film is an extension of Murphy’s Law, where not three, but an infinite number of things go wrong, it is predictable. Even though the audience may have a vague idea of what is coming, Silverman’s rendering of each scene still surprises and toys with the audience’s empathy. Her connection to the role allows her to give the audience a raw and complex look into depression through the eyes of a self-destructive desperate housewife.