In I Smile Back, which opened this past weekend, Sarah Silverman plays very much against type: She stars as Laney, a wife and mother whose struggle to manage her mental illness threatens to upend her family and relationships. The film has been referred to casually as an “addiction movie” by many critics, as over the course of the film, Laney indulges in drugs, infidelity, and reckless behavior that put her and her loved ones at risk. But when I interviewed screenwriter and author of the novel of the same name, Amy Koppelman, and director Adam Salky (Dare) at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, they talked about not wanting the movie to be pigeonholed as such. “That’s not to say that addiction movies aren’t powerful and meaningful,” said Koppelman. “But we just always looked at the addiction, or the drinking, or the drugs, or the fucking around as symptoms of her trying to relieve herself of her fears, her having moments of being able to be numb, and in those moments not have the anxiety that’s so all-consuming for her.”
And it’s true that it doesn’t fully make sense to brand I Smile Back with that simplistic genre tag. Whereas many addiction movies like Requiem for a Dream or Drugstore Cowboy are memorable primarily for their uncomfortably bleak, unrelentingly graphic depictions of substance abuse, I Smile Back doesn’t lean so heavily on disturbing drug-fueled moments. In scenes with her husband, played by Josh Charles, Laney confesses her bleary outlook on life: She doesn’t want to get a dog for the family because she “doesn’t want the kids to be hurt by its eventual death,” she says at one point. She finds it difficult to find meaning in life—though she tries hard, and clearly loves her children and family, as shown in one particular scene in which they bond in the middle of the night during a power outage. The story is just as concerned with Laney’s depression and unhappiness as it is with watching her succumb to her addictions. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to call it a movie about mental illness—onscreen, Laney gives in to addiction over and over again, but her addiction feels much more character-driven than drug-driven.
Koppelman never pins a direct diagnosis on Laney: “We all spent a lot of time talking about this, because as soon as you say, ‘She suffers from this,’ you have every expert saying, ‘No, she’s not bipolar, she really has borderline personality disorder …’” At times, this sense of ambiguity creeps into the storytelling, as the narrative meanders in a way that doesn’t always make sense. But genre labels aside, Silverman’s performance is the most unforgettable part of the movie—undeniably intense, mesmerizing, and sad.
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