The first time I was hospitalized for depression, I refused to let the nurses call my family. I was too ashamed of what was happening to me, primarily because there was no reason for it. My external life was fine, even easy. I had a stable, loving family and a job that paid well enough. I had no justification for the paralyzing emptiness, the sorrow, or the self-loathing that had come to dominate my life.
Adam Salky’s I Smile Back begins with Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman) watching through a bathroom window as her husband and two children play basketball in the yard. Her house is lovely. Each member of her family seems healthy and happy, shouting encouragement to one another. But instead of joining them, Laney has locked herself away to do lines of cocaine off the back of her phone and languish in the tub. Everything about her face and body language exudes a kind of numb despair.
I know what that feels like, being the broken chain in your family. The combination of tenderness and terror as you turn away, lock the door. The sensation of watching them talk, hug, and love, wondering what fundamental part of you is missing that keeps you from joining them.
Later in the movie, Laney wanders lost through her own house, drunk and high on a combination of drugs. She’s not a hero or a victim, Aegus or Ariadne. She’s the minotaur in her labyrinth. She crawls, moaning, into the bedroom she shares with her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), like a creature out of his nightmares.
Not that Laney is truly a monster. It’s just that she wants to be one, or at least, a part of her does. She’s continually pushing herself past any kind of polite society or acceptable way of living. Deep down, maybe we all just want to destroy whatever frightens us.
Still, another part of Laney does want to be a wife, a mother, “a real person,” as she tells her therapist after checking into rehab. Her phrasing has me nodding along. Real people love and are loved; they are connected to the earth while the rest of us—the sub-people, the whatever-we-ares—drift away. I know what that feels like, too, the longing to become a real person, even as you refuse to try.
When Bruce comes home with a dog for the kids, she is furious.
“Dogs get old and die!” she points out. This is what Laney and I can see: the direct line between love and unbearable pain.
Bruce tries to argue that the 10 years of happiness that precede the dog’s death will be worth it, that their children are capable of handling the eventual suffering. And the rational part of my brain knows he’s right. But the other part, the one that has earned me a small handful of diagnoses, is rooting for Laney as she poses the question, “Why love anything?”
Over the course of my life, I have watched pretty much every movie about mental illness I could get my hands on, from horror movies like May, to Lifetime Originals like Call Me Crazy, to indie dramas like Canvas. Most of these movies, especially the dramas, make an effort to create sympathetic main characters. They want to take you into their protagonists’ worlds—and according to the conventional rules of storytelling, your main character has to at least start off in a relatable place for that to happen.
But one of the things that drew me in about I Smile Back—even as it repelled a lot of reviewers—is that Laney is decidedly not that type of character. She’s cruel, short-tempered, and manipulative. She’s been cheating on Bruce for an unspecified (but apparently long) stretch of time. She’s not a sympathetic sufferer like Susanna in Girl, Interrupted or Lars in Lars and the Real Girl. She tests your ability to relate to her, seemingly trying to alienate herself from the audience as much as she is from the people in her world.
But for viewers like me—assuming there are other viewers like me—it’s this very alienation that keeps us watching. My defense mechanisms are different from Laney’s; where she lashes out, I’m more prone to withdrawal. The results are the same, though. We both end up alone, surrounded by a silence that seems to stretch for miles.
In fact, silence is one of the more powerful recurring themes in I Smile Back. There are long stretches of it during Laney’s first visit with her therapist. When Laney and Bruce disagree, she’s more likely to tamp her thoughts down with wine or a lollipop than to explain what she’s thinking. But Laney’s not the only fan of repression here. When she tries to confess her affair to Bruce, he seems to sense bad news is coming. He doesn’t want to hear it. He calls their children over, using them as a kind of emotional shield so that Laney is forced to keep her secret.
Even when Laney and her family do speak, it’s rarely about problems that need to be addressed. When Laney’s son Eli asks if she went to rehab because she’s “a drug addict,” she reassures him with a series of emphatic no’s, even through addiction is very much one of the issues she was being treated for. When Laney meets her estranged father for the first time in years, he tells a story revealing that his own mother was a negligent alcoholic.
“I never knew that,” Laney exclaims.
“I don’t even think your mother knew,” he replies.
How do you talk to your family about the unspeakable? Laney and Bruce certainly don’t seem to know, and the effects are beginning to be seen in their children. Eli is showing his own symptoms of anxiety, or possibly even obsessive compulsive disorder. When a school counselor fills them in on this, Laney blurts out, “It’s my fault; he’s got my genes.”
But is it really a matter of genetics, or just the result of the silence that flows through generations, buoying trauma and isolation?
When Laney sees the happier life her father has built with his new wife and younger daughter, she is unable to voice her sorrow or rage. All she can do is steal the “father” doll from her half-sister’s dollhouse, then stifle her sobs on the cab ride to the nearest bar.
“You always seem to find your way home eventually,” Bruce snaps at Laney when she finally returns to their hotel room. He’s right perhaps, but not in the way that he thinks. He’s using “home” to refer to the house they share with their children, but the question is, what does home mean to Laney?
After her failed reunion with her father, and a subsequent relapse, Laney begins to dissolve completely. She steals pills from her lover, flirts with suicide by taking her hands off the steering wheel while speeding through a red light. She endures a violent encounter with a stranger from a bar. The tragedy is, all of this can be seen as Laney’s notion of finding her way home; for those of us with chaotic inner lives, outward turmoil can be so much more bearable than any kind of peace. This is what Laney and I can see: the comfort that lies in pain.
Which is why I Smile Back’s final scene carries such a horrible sense of completion. Laney, her face still bleeding from her recent assault, takes a cab back to her family’s house. In the very early morning hours, she makes her children’s lunches and decorates their lunch bags, just as she has every morning for years. It’s a simple gesture of pure love, but this time, it’s also a farewell.
As she makes her way towards the door, somethings catches her attention: Bruce, at the top of the stairs, watching her. The house is silent. They stare at one another for a tenuous moment, a point at which either one of them could speak and potentially turn everything around. Either one could find some kind of salvation here, or at least take a first step towards it.
Instead, Laney continues walking. She leaves the house, shuts the door behind her. In silence.
At one point in the movie, when things are going well, Laney asks Bruce to tell her “the newsstand story.” It’s the story of how they first met, all those years ago, a story about Bruce falling in love with a beautiful, exciting young woman.
But it’s also the point of origin for nearly every horrible thing we watch over the course of the movie, from Laney’s drug-fueled affair and self destruction, to the suffering she inflicts on herself and her loved ones.
This is what Laney and I can see: the rot that stems from love.
The first time I watched I Smile Back, I resolved not to be like Laney, to take the film as a cautionary tale. But that was two years ago, and still I find myself circling back to the same type of mistakes I’ve always made. For better or for worse, I keep finding my way home.
But I’m not done yet. Like Laney, I am fractured, which has its up and downs. It means that for every part of me that feels broken and hopeless, there is a corresponding part that wants to persevere. I am not ready to walk out of my family’s house for the last time. I want to share, to create. I don’t want silence to win out.