‘I Smile Back’ charts the struggle to hold on to one’s life

“I Smile Back” (2015). Cast: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman, Thomas Sadoski, Mia Barron, Sean Reda, Terry Kinney, Oona Laurence, Chris Sarandon. Director: Adam Salky. Screenplay: Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman. Web site. Trailer.

Having it all should be enough for happiness and contentment, right? But what if it’s not? What if it masks an underlying emptiness driven by inexplicable feelings of unrelenting sadness, past regrets and compulsive behaviors aimed at paving over that pain? That’s the struggle faced by an upscale housewife whose life is slipping away from her in the gripping drama, “I Smile Back,” now available on DVD and video on demand.

Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman), a married mother of two, would appear to live a charmed life. Her wealthy husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), provides well for his family, and her kids (Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman) are an absolute joy. So why is mom so unhappy? That’s what she needs to find out.

In getting there, though, Laney routinely binges on alcohol, prescription drugs and illicit substances and unabashedly has affairs with other men, including one of her husband’s best friends (Thomas Sadoski). She also abandons the medications designed to treat her bipolar disorder, contending they’re making her fat. However, such reckless behavior eventually catches up with her, which lands Laney in rehab to get her life back together.

Through the course of her treatment and subsequent release, Laney toils to become the person she believes she’s supposed to be. But, no matter how much she attempts to conquer her demons and avoid the temptations always around her, she has difficulty staying clean, especially when directly confronting her past, as happens in a strained encounter with the father (Chris Sarandon) who abandoned her as a child. And the further Laney immerses herself in these challenging and sometimes-unhealthy circumstances, the harder she must try to hold it together – or risk losing her mind.

There’s often a tremendous difference between how we see the world and how we’re expected to view it, as Laney finds out for herself. That difference lies in our beliefs, and they can truly make a world of difference, as the aforementioned scenarios illustrate. That’s because our beliefs serve as the cornerstones of the reality we experience, all as part of the conscious creation process, the means by which our existence is brought into being.

Given Laney’s material circumstances, everyone believes that she should be enjoying her seemingly privileged life. But, given her state of mind, not to mention her life experiences (and the beliefs that helped shape them), Laney’s view of reality is anything but what others assume it to be.

So how is it that Laney’s bleak perception of existence is so contrary to that of those around her? As with all elements of reality creation, it has to do with her beliefs. On a number of occasions, she expresses her singular view of the world, one that’s reflective of those notions that distinguish her perceptions from those of others. And, given how stubbornly they persist, they offer evidence of their tremendous strength and staying power, something that she – like many of us – routinely takes for granted.

For instance, in a rather tense exchange with her husband about getting a dog, Laney argues against the idea, contending that the pooch is only going to die in 10 years, resulting in great sadness for all concerned. Bruce counters by saying that owning a dog will yield 10 years of love and happiness for the children, an experience that they, like all kids, should have. But Laney insists that the despair that comes from the dog’s eventual demise will cancel out those benefits, to which Bruce frustratedly responds that everything dies, and, if that’s the case, why should we bother loving anyone or anything – a retort with which Laney readily agrees. With a pessimistic outlook like that, is it any wonder how she’s developed the negative worldview she’s embraced?

To overcome such a viewpoint, a change in beliefs is required. But, in Laney’s case, adopting a new mindset may be easier said than done, since her beliefs seem to be quite entrenched. And, to compound matters, she’s clearly reluctant to alter them. That becomes apparent when she enters rehab, which she resists from the outset, an attitude that carries over into her counseling sessions with her therapist (Terry Kinney). What’s more, through those sessions, it’s obvious that these beliefs have been in place for some time, which accounts for their entrenchment and persistence. Laney even concedes that they probably don’t serve her any more, either. So, if that’s the case, then, why does she continue to hold on to them? Indeed, what does she get out of doing this?

That’s the $64,000 question Laney must address if she ever hopes to change her life. Could it be that holding on to these beliefs is designed to prove a point? If so, to what end? Is it possible that this attitude is intended to be directed toward someone, like her father, an attempt to show how his abandonment ruined her life? But, if he’s no longer part of that life, what’s to be gained from such beliefs and behavior? Or perhaps they’re part of a challenging life lesson she’s chosen to pursue, one that’s inherently difficult and that she may not even be consciously aware of. In any event, these are issues that Laney needs to sort out if she’s ever to find the answers she seeks in bettering her life.

In circumstances like these, there are steps we can take to overcome such harsh conditions. For example, attempting to envision and embrace a different path (and forging beliefs commensurate with it) is an excellent way to get past an outmoded outlook. It can be especially helpful if done holistically, applying it to all of life’s endeavors. This usually requires adjusting our beliefs on a core level, which may be challenging (though not impossible) but can pay handsome dividends in terms of an overall shift in one’s worldview.

None of this is not meant to minimize the effort that must go into such an undertaking. Indeed, Laney is to be commended for facing her fears and simply making the effort, no matter what the outcome, hallmarks of a truly strong, empowered woman. But working through entrenched beliefs that limit our capacity to move past self-imposed obstacles can nevertheless be challenging, especially if we continue to employ beliefs that allow the manifestation of distractions and temptations that keep us from attending to our personal growth work. In some cases, even with our best efforts, we may find that holding things together is difficult, perhaps even raising the specter of failure, with our reality seemingly slipping away from us – and being unable to do much about it.

All of this illustrates the importance of monitoring our beliefs carefully, for, as Laney’s experience shows, they’re powerful forces in shaping the world around us. This is particularly true with the beliefs we embraced in our past that have endured into our present, because, if they no longer serve us, they may carry on into our future as well – perhaps leading us to a point of no return.

While sometimes painful to watch, this cinematic cautionary tale is nevertheless compelling for Silverman’s breakthrough dramatic performance, which deservedly earned her a best actress nomination in last year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards competition. Even though she’s best known for her outlandish comedy work, Silverman proves here that she has the chops for serious drama, demonstrating a heretofore-unknown range that stands her in good stead for a more diverse repertoire of future roles.

Regrettably, some elements of the film’s narrative don’t feel fully fleshed out. But then maybe that’s the point: Sliding over the edge isn’t something we may always understand or for which we can pinpoint a definitive cause. Still, despite this shortcoming, “I Smile Back” is a tremendous showcase for an actress who has a lot more in the tank than she’s typically been given credit for.

In life we all hope for a happy ending. But attaining that outcome often takes us down a path full of trials and tribulations, some of which we may not understand or be able to cope with. Looking to ourselves, though, may very well provide the key we need to unlock the mystery of our circumstances and to turn a challenging and troubling situation to our advantage, one that may even lead us to that proverbial storybook outcome.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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