Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman) lives two lives. On the outside, she’s a devoted wife to her insurance salesman/author husband Bruce (Josh Charles) and a loving mother to her two children (Shayne Coleman and Skylar Gaertner). She’s earnestly protective and adoring of her children and supportive of her husband’s career, which has afforded the family to live comfortably in suburban New Jersey. On the inside, Laney is on the brink of collapse — her internal struggle with depression and addiction is boiling over and threatening to derail her entire family.
Laney recklessly indulges in drugs, alcohol and extramarital affairs in an attempt to cope with her affliction, but the dangerous cycle only further buries her under the weight of her sorrow. She is consumed with the fear that she’ll pass her depression on to her children and goes to great lengths to protect them from any thorny situations. This overprotection stems in part from her own tumultuous upbringing, in which her father left her as a pre-teen and then never reconnected later in life. Laney’s inability to balance desire and obligation eventually forces the hand of Bruce, who takes her to a rehab facility to get clean. She emerges from rehab focused on being a parent and a wife but her demons once again beckon in a gripping final act.
Under the steady direction of Adam Salky, I Smile Back is a fearless study of a parent in the throes of addiction and depression. The script, co-written by Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan, was adapted from Koppelman’s 2008 novel of the same name. Silverman takes a tremendous leap of faith outside of her comfort zone and gives a nuanced and emotionally draining performance as the existentially conflicted Laney. It’s an incredibly demanding role for any actress, and Silverman breathes a veracity and authenticity into the well-trotted “dysfunctional suburban housewife” trope. I Smile Back is careful not to make Laney a one-dimensional character with “daddy issues” — while her fractured relationship with her father no doubt has a role in her psyche, Laney’s maladies are not easily diagnosable by pointing out one or two sources. Laney’s bipolar propensities play out evocatively before our eyes; the tender moments she shares with her children are juxtaposed with hurried lines of cocaine and her destructive sexual escapism. Anyone who has dealt with depression or addiction either personally or secondhand will see the sincerity and heartbreak of Laney.
The ones who make you laugh the loudest tend to be the most tortured, reserved ones in the room. As a comedienne, Silverman has spoken openly about her own battles with depression as devices in her stand-up. So much of modern comedy is built on a keen self-awareness and a seemingly never-ending barrage of self-deprecation. In her first truly dramatic leading role, Silverman is able to channel that complexity into a vulnerable and courageous turn as Laney. I Smile Back is a gritty and demanding drama with an ending that, albeit potentially divisive, will stick in your gut long after the credits roll.