Sarah Silverman has been underused as an actress ever since the comedian’s talent behind a microphone got her in front of cameras. Aside from projects she wrote herself, Silverman has always been saddled with tiresome girlfriend and mean girl roles that barely explored her skills. Yet, she always seems to give off a taste of her untested chops. I Smile Back is the film that gives Silverman a chance to show of her acting abilities and who would ever have guessed Sarah’s breakout role as an actress would be as the mom equivalent of the Bad Lieutenant?
Silverman stars as a self-destructive New Jersey housewife committed to depression and a variety of addictions (both substance-based and sexual). Director Adam Salky’s uncompromising movie starts with Silverman hitting rock bottom in a variety of dark ways, leading to a long overdue attempt at recovery that might not be worth the effort. At times, the movie gives off a misery-porn vibe in its unabashed dedication to the protagonist’s degradation. Yet Silverman commits to the role so fully and fearlessly that she often saves it from itself. Even when the movie strips away all reason for empathy towards her character, the actress always finds a way to reveal the pain behind the behaviour.
Even those who have long hoped Silverman would get a shot to show off her acting chops should be shocked by her undeniably extraordinary work here. Beyond only a few wiffs of the bleakest possible humour, she abandons her familiar persona completely and dives deeply into the uncomfortable headspace of a deeply damaged woman. It’s often uncomfortable to watch, yet somehow the actress manages to project just enough damage and scars beneath the repeating behaviour patterns to offer a tragic core. I Smile Back is certainly a tough film, but one with such an intriguing protagonist and wonderful central performance that it’s worth all of the cringes and squirms.