Without the proper coping mechanisms, life’s pressures can be overwhelming. Self- and society-imposed expectations are sometimes not only challenging but impossible to achieve. Mothers often feel this the most as everyone seems to have an opinion about what makes a good mom, providing varied and conflicting advice that can be enough to drive any parent to the edge. In I Smile Back, a woman who desires nothing more than to be a good wife and mother cannot overcome her self-destructive tendencies.
Laney (Sarah Silverman) has two school-aged children, a successful husband and a lovely home. Outwardly she appears to be living a fortunate life, but past the exterior she is incredibly tortured. Rather than take her anti-depressants, she opts for cocaine and other illicit drugs that she sneaks in the bathroom while her family waits for her to join them. While they’re away at school and work, Laney sneaks off to bars to drink excessively and has casual sex with other men. She’s as close as a person can get to rock bottom without actually colliding with it. This may be her final shot at redemption, but forgiveness is a two-way street and she’s been going down the wrong road for so long.
This isn’t necessarily a new take on addiction, but it’s not often a woman is shown committing these damaging acts; more often than not, it’s the husband and/or father spiralling away from his family. It’s obvious Laney struggles with insecurity and abandonment issues, asking her children to reaffirm their commitment to her when it’s usually the other way around. But she also does a fairly good job at hiding her indiscretions, living a secret double life that she mostly manages to keep from intersecting. Watching Laney is equally infuriating and pitiful as she grows more liable to hurt her family, while also appearing desperate to hide/find something and incapable of stopping herself.
Silverman is primarily known as one of Hollywood’s funny women, but like many comedians she proves competent at portraying more serious characters as well. While it’s a very dramatic role, the actress also has to be able to convey the absurdity and irony of various situations, which infuses the film with some unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable humour. As woefully as Laney behaves, she never asks for anyone’s pity on or off screen and she’s rarely the victim. Silverman walks the line and produces a performance that not only captivates audiences, but doesn’t allow them to despise Laney. She carries this movie with confidence and sincerity, staying true to her character’s faults and desires.