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Few Smiles in ‘I Smile Back’


It’s the kind of performance you’re dying to see — but can’t bring yourself to watch.

Comedian Sarah Silverman takes a dramatic-as-a-heart-attack turn as a wealthy suburban mom devastated by anxiety and addiction in the new feel-bad movie of the season, I Smile Back.

The role’s got Oscar nod written all over it: See the actress grind on a teddy bear, sleep with strangers, snort cocaine off a bathroom floor, lie right to the face of her saintly husband — and ache with excruciating, visceral love for her still-perfect children. Silverman is 100 percent committed and compelling as Laney, the Shakespearean-tragedy-of-a-mommy so terrified of being abandoned by the people she loves that she systematically, almost willfully, destroys any reason for them to stay.

The movie was adapted from Amy Koppelman’s 2008 novel I Smile Back.

“It came from a place of asking, ‘What if I had worked so hard to build this tiny little family and then I had it in me to bust it up?’” says Koppelman, who also wrote the screenplay with Paige Dylan. “I think every mother has terrible fears of how they’re going to damage their children. When my kids were born, I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I can only fuck them up from this moment. I just have to try to mitigate the amount that I fuck them up.’ You’re really not prepared for the fear of having kids and protecting these lives. The love that you have is just crippling; it’s the most wonderful thing, but it’s also crippling.”

In the movie, we cringe and shout “no!” as we watch Laney’s reckless choices unfold. But the book lets us see the not-so-crazy thought processes that drive her to those terrible actions. The book makes Laney relatable. Which is frightening.

Plodding through the inevitable rituals of the modern housewife — packing daily lunches, navigating school drop-offs, sitting politely through her husband’s business dinners — Laney can’t escape “the constant reminder of the futility in life.” And modern moms will recognize her feelings, whether they admit it or not.

The mythology of motherhood tells us that caring for budding humans is the highest calling, that it brings unparalleled joy, and that your children’s laughter and the smell of their freshly bathed necks are nourishment enough to sustain you through all your days on this planet. But it isn’t necessarily true. And for those struggling with depression, such myths are lighter fluid on the fires of guilt and anxiety.

“I really wanted to make sure people knew that Laney loved her children and her husband,” says Koppelman, who has battled depression herself. “Everything I write is obviously very personal: the feelings of self-loathing, doubt, fear.” Though she swears none of the actual narratives are true, she says her own father was a lot like Laney: “No matter how much we loved him and thought we could heal him through loving him, he was just somebody who was bound to destroy.”

The theme of insurmountable loss weaves its way through all of her books. Her first novel, A Mouthful of Air, is about a new mother with postpartum depression who kills herself and her infant. (“It’s a joyride,” Koppelman confesses, chuckling.) And her brand-new book, Hesitation Wounds, is about a psychiatrist specializing in treatment-resistant depression and grappling with the death of her brother, but the author promises this book is “more hopeful” than the others.

So, yes, her stories are challenging, and I Smile Back isn’t going to buoy your holiday spirits the way your 12th annual viewing of Elf will — but it may, in fact, do something more important.

“If you can see yourself or someone you love in the character, maybe you can get them the help they need,” Koppelman says. “Or if you love someone like Laney, you can see that their behavior, their illness, is not your fault.”

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