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I sometimes get infuriated when comedians decided to delve into dramatic roles. Just because they’ve succeeded in one genre doesn’t mean that they can instantly move across to another, especially when they decide to eschew the traits and personality that they’ve used to have such triumphs.
That’s what makes Sarah Silverman’s performance in I Smile Back so truly impressive. Sure, Silverman herself has meandered between comedic and dramatic roles in a frequent manner, but she’s always deployed the same vile, rambunctious but disconcertingly sweet persona that has been a mainstay in her stand-up shows. Throughout her big-screen career, though, Silverman has been in a supporting role. Arriving on cue to provide a laugh, before then leaving the leading star to handle the heavy lifting. But with I Smile Back, Silverman is able to do both. Making you laugh one second, pity her the next, worry soon after, before finally despising her. Sometimes she’s even able to do all of this at the same time.
Because of Sarah Silverman’s startling showing, you are able to forgive I Smile Back for traipsing into some of the clichéd traits of the indie-drama genre. It also helps that Adam Salky’s direction and Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan’s script both take risks.
Salky starts off with a quick, montage that immediately gets you up-to date with the plight of Sarah Silverman’s Laney, while he also uses the hollow, middle-class houses and hotels to heighten just how isolated and out of place the character is. He doesn’t allow tight shots of Silverman to try and force an intimacy with the character, instead trusting her performance to create that connection. Sure, I Smile Back delves into cliché as it explores just how damaged and out of control Laney is. But there are also some truly shocking scenes – the worst of which that takes place on Laney’s daughter’s bedroom floor – and it becomes more and more uncompromising and unflinching up until its resolute conclusion.
Speaking of its ending, I Smile Back deserves praise for not only reaching its finale quickly – its breezy 85-minute run time flows smoothly – but for how unsubtle and conclusive it is. Sometimes, indie-dramas get caught up in trying to create a vague and artistic last scene, which, rather than being poignant, ends up being frustrating. With I Smile Back, you get a real resolution.
But it’s all about Sarah Silverman. Even though Josh Charles and Thomas Sadoski are exemplary, it’s Silverman who glides I Smile Back through its moments of tedium, while her performance grows and grows in stature. Through her smile, there’s a hidden darkness just peering out, which as soon as you glimpse it grabs hold of you. Her exacerbation at the modernity of life is something that we’ve all dealt with, and she almost seems to be laughing at the people that can abide with it.
Unfortunately, there’s probably not enough buzz or substance to I Smile Back to earn Sarah Silverman any gongs or statues for her performance. But that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best of the year.