“I Smile Back” is a raw and unflinching portrait of an incredibly broken human being desperately seeking redemption. Sarah Silverman departs from her usual comedic fare to play Laney Brooks, a mom and housewife deteriorating beneath her fragile façade of suburban perfection. As Laney’s husband Bruce sells life insurance, offering people a semblance of control by ‘hedging their bet against God,’ Laney’s life, family and marriage spiral out of control in the chaos of depression and addictions.
Laney is presented as a deeply flawed, and yet deeply sympathetic character. Her fierce love for her children is undeniable; Her determination to provide for them the stability that she lacked as a child makes her self-destructive behavior all the more tragic. Even as the audience cringes in disgust at Laney’s choices and actions, her character holds up a mirror for us to view our own brokenness. We are reminded of our own inability to carry out the good we long to do and our propensity to do that which we do not want to do.
In a sense, the film is a study of the consequences of human brokenness and sin. Although we glimpse the root causes of Laney’s self-destructive behavior, the film focuses on the rippling effects of her actions on those she loves. But it is Laney’s reluctance to face and work through the roots of her pain –to deal with the ways that others have hurt her- that keeps her trapped in the cycle of hurting others. “I Smile Back” refuses to give us a tidy Hollywood ending, and yet, it likewise refuses to leave us completely in despair about life. As the film stares unflinchingly into Laney’s descent, we see glimpses of a way out in the people desperately trying to help her. As we root for Laney to choose authentic life and relationships, we encounter a desire to persevere through our own battles and to fight for those whom we love who are struggling.