TIFF40 2015 Film Review: I Smile Back

One of the most fascinating and wholly satisfying moments of Hollywood cinema is being present during that moment when a prominent and famous comedy actor transitions from their comfortable, recognizable and iconic genre to that of a raw and unglamorous dramatic role. Luckily for us, such is the case for the quick witted, dirtied tongue comedy actress Sarah Silverman, in her latest film I Smile Back.

Silverman, who completely transforms her usual charm and infamous devilish smile in favour of Laney Brooks, is revelatory as a woman who suffers from a chemical imbalance and deep rooted physiological issues that greatly affect the people she loves most around her.

The self-destructive archetype is not uncommon in the American indie film scene, yet, Silverman brings a new high to a character relishing in the ultimate lows.


Supported by her loving insurance selling husband Bruce Brooks (Josh Charles) and her adorable children Eli (Skylar Gaetner) and Janey (Shayne Coleman), Laney is a ticking time bomb of insecurity, trouble and instability. Regardless of their efforts to induct Laney into rehabilitation for her drug use, her obvious daddy issues and secret double life as a violent, punishment seeking nymphomaniac, Laney tries over and over again to fit in without much success.

I Smile Back, a novel by Amy Koppelman, written for the screen by Koppelman and Paige Dylan, is the ultimate Silverman shedding her comedy skin drama vehicle. Every aspect of the film is held together, driven forward and rewarded by the strong performance of Silverman. Whether she’s on the floor tripping out, cutting the crusts off her children’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or finding solace in a wellness centre, Silverman’s role unabashedly demands our attention. Silverman’s performance is a big smile and hit in the right direction for a comedy actress no one ever took seriously before.

ISB JC kid

The film itself, directed by Adam Salky, has its glimmers of interesting commentaries that are mostly left unexplored and empty. The possibility of Laney’s medical imbalance being passed on to her eldest son is one of the few directions that the film takes that the audience is surely interested in. Eli, who begins to show very similar character traits, including flinching eyes, and some signs during a piano recital, are thwarted by Laney’s passion to failure. Not that we are complaining, but I Smile Back is one example of a film where its runtime could have extended a bit longer to blossom these narrative possibilities.

I Smile Back is a daunting character piece on just how much someone is willing (or able) to screw up every aspect of their lives, despite having the most amazing and supportive people around them. Salky, who balances many engrossing images of filth and despicable behaviour by Laney, does a masterful job of juxtaposing beautiful scenes of family when Laney seems to be rehabilitated, including a fantastic family scene involving a cake and some candles.


While the light reminds on, its dim and dark presence seems to overshadow the film as a whole from beginning to end. I Smile Back is a film that allows audiences to face their own personal terrors and allowing yourself to get what you want from them. The feature is a personal reflection of the things we want to see in ourselves, and the disgusting character traits we can help but ignore.

Lacey’s character goes through the crossroads, literally and figuratively, in calmness and in a frenzy. Like a whirlwind, Silverman is a tycoon of raw and fleshy emotion that isn’t usually expected for a comedienne’s first time dramatic role.

ISB SS Shower

With an impressive supporting cast that includes The Newsroom’s Thomas Sadoski, Terry Kinney as a very real and impressive therapist who delivers some of the best and most quote worthy lines of the film, I Smile Back is a film worth smiling for, despite its heavy handed and opaque exterior. Sadly, Charles is highly underutilized as Laney’s husband and never given his due time. Instead, Charles is just left giving his best impression of Keanu Reeves and serves as a dull supporting character to the vivaciously catastrophic Laney.

Beauty is a hard theme to find in I Smile Back, yet, as Laney’s therapist reassures her in her early stages of her recovery, “Every moment of beauty fades…but, there’s more and more and more of those moments. You just need to be alive to see them”. Dark, depressing and sickened by sadness, I Smile Back may break your heart, but Silverman’s performance will have you smiling back from ear to ear in utter satisfaction.

Night Film Reviews: 7 Out of 10 Stars.

What did you think of I Smile Back and Sarah Silverman’s performance? Too forced? Or a tour-de-force? How was the film itself? Smiling or crying throughout? Leave your happy, or sad thoughts below! 


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