I Smile Back (2015)

three star

Sarah Silverman is somewhat of a required taste as a comedian. Personally speaking, she’s one of my all-time favorites. Her Liam Lynch-directed stand-up special Jesus is Magic & her sadly defunct sitcom The Sarah Silverman Program are among my favorite examples of their respective mediums, but they have more of a small cult status than a widespread appeal. A small role on the television series Masters of Sex & the recent mental illness drama I Smile Back, however, have revealed that Silverman has a much more universal appeal as a dramatic actress. She’s downright Julianne Moore-esque in her ability to convey utter devastation through mere body language, an incredible talent considering how much of her career has been rooted in the other end of the entertainment spectrum.

In I Smile Back, Silverman plays a frustrated housewife suffering from anxiety, depression, and chemical dependency. Her mental illness inspires rash behavior she can barely control or keep under wraps – drug & alcohol abuse, adultery, inappropriate modes of masturbation, body image issues, and the impulse to duck her lithium prescription in favor of her self-medication routine. As she makes one self-destructive decision after another all you can do as an audience is cringe, silently shouting “No! Stop! Stop it!” with no control over her behavior. She reacts similarly, immediately regretting each transgression, but unable to stop herself in the act. Completely detached from her own sense of self, she confesses, “I need to remember how to be a good wife and a good mother and a good person,” but her disorder consistently interrupts any moves she makes to reconnect with her past healthy behavior. I Smile Back‘s broken protagonist loves her children – perhaps excessively – but the responsibility of that love is too much pressure for her to handle. She confesses, “It’s terrifying to love something so much.” This pressure leads to a quiet, seething hatred she can’t control and various self-destructive modes of releasing pressure.

I Smile Back is not a particularly unique film as far as mental health dramas go. Hell, Gabriel is a better example of the genre from just earlier this year. There are some flashes of brilliance on the filmmaking end, especially when the pacing & sound design attempt to match the protagonist’s inner anxiety. An opening montage’s frantic, scattered, rapid-fire edits recall a depressive, unsexed version of Russ Meyer‘s work. Shots of Silverman’s protagonist stumbling down the drug-warped nightmares of her own hallways are extremely effective in adopting her POV (as well as recalling the classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”). I also appreciated the way the film focuses on how men in her life dismiss the severity of her illness by pointing out how “crazy” & “crazy hot” she is or demanding to know “Why does everything have to be such a big deal?” For the most part, though, I Smile Back is a no frills portrait of a woman with a chemical imbalance & a history of family members suffering the same.

The real story here is how vulnerable Sarah Silverman makes herself for the camera. For the film’s press tour she has been very vocal about her own personal struggles with anxiety & depression & how they drove her connection with the film’s source material novel, a sentiment reflected in early scenes of the character/actress examining herself in a mirror. Her soul is laid bare here. I’m not sure that the quality of the film matches the intensity of her performance, but she was still fascinating to watch. I’m glad that an artist I respect chose to push her boundaries in a passion project like this & I hope the emotional weight of what had to be an exhausting experience doesn’t discourage her from taking chances like this again in the future. Silverman was phenomenal, even if the movie wasn’t nearly as special.

-Brandon Ledet

Queen of Earth (2015)



I’ve read a lot of positive reviews of Alex Ross Perry’s 2014 film Listen Up Philip, but my deep and abiding loathing for Jason Schwartzman ensured that I was never tempted to see the film, despite the fact that it also starred Elisabeth Moss, an actress that I like quite a lot. Perry’s new film, Queen of Earth, has generated a great deal of buzz, and I’m happy to say that I found the film to be deserving of every accolade it’s received so far. Set at a lake house in the Hudson River Valley, the film focuses on the relationship between lifelong friends Catherine (Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston), and the way that that people who love each other can cause more damage to those they care about than any outsider can, as well as the fact that, as Virginia says in one of her fantastic monologues, “You can escape other people’s cycles, but you can’t escape your own.”

The previous summer, Virginia invited Catherine to her parent’s lake house for what was supposed to be a week of healing intimacy between friends after Virginia experienced a painful event (implied to be a complicated childbirth before giving the baby up for adoption). Catherine spoiled their getaway by bringing along her codependent boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), with whom Virginia had a mutual open loathing. This summer, Catherine is the person suffering; as revealed in the film’s opening moments, James recently dumped her shortly after her artist father’s suicide, citing a relationship with another woman with whom he had been involved even before Catherine’s father’s “accident.” Catherine, herself an artist who worked for and idolized her father in an unhealthy way, is distraught and breaking down, and her recuperation at the lake house is impeded by the frequent presence of Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s neighbor. He and Virginia were in a long term relationship, but he ignored her attempts to let him down easily when he chose to leave for grad school and she decided to let the relationship end. Both Virginia and Catherine are emotionally ignorant and immature; Virginia was much less traumatized by her experience the previous year than Catherine is by the dissolution of the relationships that she allowed to define her. This is best exemplified in a flashback showing Virginia discussing her hospital experience but ultimately ending her monologue with declarations of how much she despises people who weigh on her emotionally and eventually cuts them out of her life. She dismisses Rich’s desires to maintain their relationship despite the distance between them as delusional, but her attempts to turn the tables on Catherine (by inviting Rich, an interloping lover, to spend time at the lake house during what is supposed to be a healing period for Catherine) are petty and heartless in a way that exceeds any reasonable amount of resentment.

Catherine, for her part, is little better. Although a great deal of the film’s conflict is found in implication, flashbacks show her to be a self-interested child of privilege with little regard for the concerns of others. Bringing James with her to the previous year’s retreat was a mistake that she fails to appreciate the gravity of and does not apologize for, even after Virginia makes her displeasure evident. Further, her reactions to the attempts that people make to connect with her, and the way she perceives all communication as meddling in her personal affairs, paint her as a bit of a brat. Although she is surrounded by people who do not seem to be significantly less privileged than she is (Virginia’s parents’ lake house is beautiful and doubtlessly expensive, and Rich’s parents own a similar, neighboring location, so it’s not as if the two are struggling), her peers perceive her as cold and unapproachable. It’s implied that her late father may have schemed to take advantage of others’ money, but nothing is ever made explicit, and, if her father was the Bernie Madoff of the Hudson River Valley, her denial of his sins and weaknesses despite being his assistant as well as his daughter would make their dislike of her more understandable. Overall, however, our sympathy lies with her, as she descends into the kind of spiraling depression that is rarely depicted onscreen, as she becomes more and more detached from social mores and human behavior, becoming more feral and inhuman with each passing day. Virginia’s failure to realize how much her vengeance is hurting her oldest and dearest friend, and her refusal to send Rich away as he becomes more confrontational and cruel, paints her in a more unsympathetic light, although we also empathize with her inability to properly conceptualize just how deep Catherine’s wounds are.

This is a deeply emotional and cinematically beautiful movie that gets to the heart of interpersonal relationships and how affection can sour due to an individual’s blindness to his or her own faults. The musical cues, increasing tension, and sense of dread are all cribbed from thrillers of the seventies, but the violence on display never transcends from emotional to physical (or does it?), and the intentionally ambiguous ending is at once both a perfect ending and a somewhat unsatisfactory one, although that does not detract from the overall quality of the picture. What’s more, it’s impossible not to note what a funny movie this can be in its smaller moments, as it doesn’t shy away from the ways that a person’s breakdown can often lead to moments of unintentional hilarity. As rare as it is to see a film that so unabashedly stares into the face of mental illness, it’s even rarer to see a film that understands and appreciates that, from the outside, the behaviors of an irrational person can be objectively humorous even if they are subjectively heartbreaking, and the film manages to tread that line in an insightful and deft way. More than just adding more scenes to Moss’s career highlight reel, this movie is the most honest portrayal of unhealthy bonds I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. It will break your heart and then make it sing, and you’ll be haunted by the images and their emotional resonance for weeks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Gabriel (2015)


I have an unusual, all-consuming fascination with the modern fairy tale Electrick Children. For a somewhat quiet & unassuming indie drama, the film has burrowed its way deep into my unconscious and I find myself thinking about it & rewatching it far more often than I probably should. A lot of the film’s success is easily recognizable in the lead performances from actors Julia Garner & Rory Culkin and in the past week I’ve been able to see those talents continue to shine onscreen in two new features. Julia Garner was wonderful in the modestly enjoyable Lily Tomlin comedy Grandma & now I’ve seen Rory Culkin excel in the titular role of the much bleaker, much superior Gabriel.

Gabriel follows a very eventful 48 hours or so in the life of its titular protagonist, a mentally ill Rory Culkin on weekend leave from an institution. Supposed to be in the care of his nerve-wracked family, Gabriel hatches several escapes as a means to find & propose marriage to an old flame, Alice. When the movie begins, a medicated, sluggish, but quick to anger Gabriel is somewhat creepy in his attempts to hunt down Alice, especially in a scene where he’s fawning over precious objects in her vacant bedroom, huffing her bed smells like Michal Ealy in The Perfect Guy. Even in these scenes, where Gabriel might potentially be a dangerous creep, he’s our dangerous creep and it’s easy to identify with his foolhardy attempts to reach Alice & propose marriage. If, as Roger Ebert used to say, movies are a machine that generate empathy, Garbiel is a highly efficient machine, one that reveals more & more empathetic layers to a troubled, chemically imbalanced protagonist who is extremely confused & vulnerable because of a physiological malfunction beyond his control.

Rory Culkin is immensely impressive in his featured role as Gabriel. The movie asks a lot of him, playing a wide range of notes that include the desperation of a knife-wielding maniac to the helplessness of a sick kitten. As the troubled protagonist begins to duck his medication, Gabriel gradually escalates its agitated nervousness to match his mental state & Culkin is incredibly adept every step of the way. There are some visual & aural touches that help convey this secondhand anxiousness, like obsessive focus on the patterns of tree branches & fan blades as well as vocal repetition & a nerve racking use of violins. However, no matter how much the film accomplishes visually, there’s no mistake that this is Rory Culkin’s show, as he can elicit just as much of that effect from a nervous chewing of his fingernails or a seemingly simple statement like “I’m not Dad.” The heart of Gabriel is an all-too believable, oppressively bleak look at the frustration of living with a familial history of mental illness & the vulnerability of not being able to help someone you love suppress the malfunctions of their mind & body. Still, it’s Culkin’s performance that brings to life the film’s emotional weight. After being captivated by him here & in Electrick Children, I’m eager to watch every role he can land in the years to come, the same dedication I’m eager to award Julia Garner.

-Brandon Ledet