The following is excerpted from Katie Walsh’s review of the Sundance showing of I Smile Back. The review was posted on indiewire.com January 26.
Laney (Sarah Silverman) is the perfect wife to Bruce (Josh Charles) and perfect mom to Eli (Skylar Gaertner) and Janey (Shayne Coleman). She’s a nurturing, loving woman, but she’s also got a raging addiction to anything in sight: sugar, booze, pills, coke, sex, literally anything she can get her hands on. It’s clear that as much love as she has for her kids (and Silverman has great chemistry with them), there are also deep wells of rage within her that send her into flaming-out downward spirals. Silverman plays Laney with a dead-eyed, twitchy ferocity, and her performance is at once horrifying in its reality and morbidly compelling in her rampant self-destructiveness.
At first, “I Smile Back” feels a bit like a very well-shot episode of “Intervention,” and the inciting incident that eventually sends her to rehab is rather ridiculous, but boy, does Silverman sell it. The majority of the film takes place after Laney returns from rehab, who focuses mostly on her struggles to be the perfect wife and mother, while also dealing with the anger and trauma from her abandonment by her father. Silverman is completely riveting as she tries and flails to do right, and her physical performance is remarkable: a change in her gait or expression signals the switch in her personality from human to addict. She courts danger, seeking out triggering events that will drive her to the booze and sex and drugs to numb the pain.
…The story isn’t perfect, including the shocking antics of the first act, but Silverman’s performance absolutely overcomes that. She is so devastatingly bleak at times that it’s bone-chilling. Everyone hates predicting things like this so early, but with the right distributor and marketing, she could be in awards contention and absolutely would deserve it.
“I Smile Back” is a showcase for Silverman’s considerable prowess as a dramatic lead actress, and any story problems in the film are eclipsed by her tremendous performance. She’s so completely raw while also conveying the numbness and shape-shifting abilities of an addict. It’s one of the darkest portraits of human desperation and destruction seen in some time.