Sarah Silverman has a searching comic mind that makes watching her onstage a provocation as well as a pleasure. But Silverman’s role in I Smile Back is miles from laughter. Her character, Laney Brooks, is having a meltdown. She has a husband (Josh Charles) who’s only a bit of a jerk, two good kids (Skylar Gaertner and Shayne Coleman) and a house in the New Jersey burbs that fairy tales say should add up to bliss.
But not for Laney. She’s fucking around, swilling vodka, doing blow and getting off with the help of her daughter’s stuffed bear. Laney is depressed. And I Smile Back, directed by Adam Salky (Dare) from a scrappy script by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman (adapted from Koppelman’s even scrappier 2008 novel), doesn’t flinch from her illness or her smarts. Laney’s been to rehab and back. She sees the worst in herself and once in a while the best. But her depression overcomes her. The film hints at reasons: a father (Chris Sarandon) with the same genetic model; her fear of passing on what she and her dad have to her kids.
We’ve seen movies like this before, from a therapeutic handbook that makes us suspicious and slow to trust. But Silverman, digging so deep into her character that we can feel her nerve endings, is like nothing we’ve seen before. She’s fierce and unerring. No showing off; she just is. This is acting of the highest caliber.