Damaged Goods: Sarah Silverman a knockout in unflinching "I Smile Back"

I Smile Back (2015)  
85 min., rated R.

Heavy addiction dramas are sometimes the most resistible kind of films to watch, but perhaps the fact that there are so many makes something special like "I Smile Back" stand out rather than be a mere Debbie Downer. Like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Smashed," Jennifer Aniston in "Cake," and many more before them, the words "brave" and "vanity-free" get thrown around a lot when describing an on-screen performer playing a trainwreck of a character who debases him or herself and/or shocks with a nude scene. This time, stand-up comedian turned serious thespian Sarah Silverman deserves much respect for stretching her talents and undauntedly willing herself to go to some unsparingly dark places. This is a stunning, soul-baring performance and the film itself is a startling piece of work.

Privileged housewife and mom Laney Brooks (Silverman) would seem to have it all, living in a suburban mansion with loving, successful husband Bruce (Josh Charles) and two children, son Eli (Shayne Coleman) and daughter Janey (Skylar Gaertner). She also seems to be keeping it together, hiding her struggles with depression with drugs, alcohol and sex. Each day, Laney makes her kids' lunches, coloring their paper bags with crayons, and drops them off at school, ignoring the regulations of a parking guard. After that, she goes off to have a coked-up sexual rendezvous with her husband's best friend Donny (Thomas Sadoski). One fateful night after a bender that leaves her calling for Bruce's help, Laney reaches her lowest point and gets checked into rehab. The darkest hour is just before the dawn, but Laney will have to finish her downward spiral before she finds clarity.

Astutely directed by Adam Salky (2009's "Dare") and incisively written by Paige Dylan & Amy Koppelman (based on Koppelman's 2008 book), "I Smile Back" understands that the immeasurably messy road to recovery does not happen overnight. It questions if Laney's condition could be hereditary, not only from issues stemming back to the estranged relationship with her father (Chris Sarandon) but also with her own child who seems to be inheriting his mother's anxiety, but never comes to any clear-cut conclusions of the causes nor the final consequences. The film will sound like an unrelentingly dreary, one-note wallow in misery and hopelessness to someand sure, it's a tough sit that won't leave you smilingbut this is one of the rawest, most harrowing studies of self-destruction and desperation seen in quite a while. 

It's been said that humor always comes from a place of pain and darkness, so it only makes sense for Sarah Silverman to be another smart, funny performer who brings piercing insight into the human condition. Known more for her sharp wit and commitment to shock, she erased all doubts of her dramatic abilities with the first dipping of her toes in 2012's "Take This Waltz," where she impressively played a recovering alcoholic. Here, Silverman dives head-fist into the role of Laney, and her work couldn't be more frighteningly authentic or shattering. Right behind her, Josh Charles brings plenty of subtlety and shadings to the role of Laney's husband Bruce, who could have just been either a clichéd support system or a mere jerk. Rather, Bruce is portrayed as a man who would marry his wife again and again, and yet, even he has a breaking point.

When we first meet Laney, she is snorting lines of coke in the bathroom, while her husband shoots hoops with their children. As a wife and mother, she loves her family, but underneath every forced smile, she is a mess, cracking the controlled facade for her lack of self-control. A clearer context of who Laney was before she became an addict might have strengthened the devastation, but the stinging final shot is enough to chill one to the bone. Throughout, director Adam Salky's film has a low-key but assured and intimate style, balancing the intimacy of a tête-à-tête between Laney and her husband and the ruin of her own making. "I Smile Back" is unflinching and poignant in its own right, but it doubly acts as a completely eye-opening showcase for Silverman and an auspicious bellwether for her growth as an actor who's going places.

Grade: A -