“I Smile Back,” which premieres in Washington, D.C., today, is adapted from Amy Koppelman’s critically acclaimed novel bearing the same name, which was first released in 2008. Like the novel, the film focuses on Laney Brooks, an upper-middle-class soccer mom who struggles with depression, alcoholism and substance abuse. After publishing her book, Koppelman tuned into an interview between Howard Stern and comedian Sarah Silverman one day. In that interview, Silverman spoke about her experience with depression and how it physically and emotionally drained her as a comedian. Koppelman connected with Silverman’s raw honesty and said that if “I Smile Back” became a movie, she wanted Silverman to play Laney Brooks. For years, Koppelman worked with her partner, Paige Dylan, to turn her novel into a screenplay. When the project was greenlit, Silverman jumped at the opportunity to play Brooks. Prior to her performance in “I Smile Back,” Sarah Silverman would most likely be recognized by audiences from one of her standup routines. Silverman’s brand of standup is known particularly for her off-beat fluidity; in “I Smile Back,” Silverman leaves behind her comedic tenure and ventures into a completely different genre that few could see coming. In 2015, audiences have become accustomed to comedians breaking convention and acting in darker and more dramatic roles. However, few female comedians, with the exception of Mo’Nique in 2009’s “Precious” or Kristen Wiig in 2014’s “The Skeleton Twins,” have broken into other dramatic roles. Laney Brooks is an unstable antiheroine who snorts cocaine before driving her children to school. Like the novel’s protagonist, whose self-destructive actions and narrative draw in the reader, Sarah Silverman in her performance as Laney Brooks, portraying Brooks’ path toward rock bottom, is steadfast and conclusive. As Brooks, Silverman grabs you and never lets you go. Each scene is emotionally charged and unsettling. Although this was her first dramatic role, Silverman masterfully commands the silver screen, and her well-paced timing allows her to deliver delicate lines to her co-stars. Silverman is aided by a talented supporting cast. Josh Charles is known for his role as attorney Will Gardner in the hit television show “The Good Wife.” In “I Smile Back,” Charles plays Laney’s supportive husband, Bruce. Bruce wants to keep his family together and to see his wife happy. In the beginning, Bruce tries to help Laney with her depression and anxiety; however, Laney’s addiction becomes too much for Bruce to handle alone. Bruce is the perfect foil to Laney, because he enjoys his suburban life and is content with his normalcy. Bruce finds happiness and fulfillment in his role as a husband and father, whereas the role of a good wife and mother exhausts Laney and acts as a catalyst for her drug and alcohol abuse. Charles and Silverman build off one another, deftly portraying their two characters’ struggles with both their own personal demons and with one another. Sarah Silverman deviates from her comedic material and soars beyond expectations to deliver a passionate and vulnerable performance in “I Smile Back.” However, just like Jennifer Aniston and her well-received performance in 2014’s “Cake,” audiences will likely skip Silverman’s performance in “I Smile Back,” due to the fact that “I Smile Back” is an independent film with a limited theatrical release. It is a shame, because “I Smile Back” is not a polarizing film, but it does deal with uncomfortable subjects. Silverman’s visceral performance as Brooks addresses the complicated emotions and stigmas surrounding depression and addiction but does not forget about the shame associated with both.
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