There’s a scene late in Daniel Patrick Carbone’s stunning feature directorial debut, “Hide Your Smiling Faces,” where a young teen carries a dog in his arms before dropping it in a lake. The tension in this moment is undeniable—will the dog become terrified and drown? Yet as soon as it hits the water, the canine’s animal instincts kick in as it paddles itself effortlessly to shore. Turns out its body was programmed to know precisely how to handle the situation.
What makes Carbone’s film such an intensely involving experience is its vivid depiction of how the “animal instincts” of its adolescent protagonists are constantly at war with a society designed to control and suppress them. Mourning the sudden death of a friend, Tommy (Ryan Jones) shares an awkward grin with his older brother, Eric (Nathan Varnson). It’s only natural for despairing souls to smile through their pain as a rebuke to the looming presence of death. Yet the boys are sternly reprimanded by their parents, who find the children’s expressions grotesque (hence the title). No wonder these kids spend so much time outdoors.
Consider another moment set at the family dinner table, where Eric breaks his brooding silence by saying that he “hates it here.” This is the boy’s attempt at finally opening up to his parents about the churning sea of emotions swirling inside of him. If his mother and father had understood these seemingly harsh words as an invitation to connecting with their son, then perhaps they would’ve discovered that Eric was deeply tormented by the suicidal yearnings of a close friend (Thomas Cruz) and enraged at the dead boy’s abusive bully of a father (Colm O’Leary). But sadly, Eric’s mom interprets this merely as a personal insult and storms away from the table, while his father looks at him with a judgmental glare and utters, “…Really?” Apparently these adults have no qualms with allowing their own primal instincts to override their better judgment.
Many critics have compared this picture to the work of Terrence Malick, drawing connections between its seemingly improvisational portrayal of boyhood and the coming-of-age sequences involving the three brothers in 2011’s masterpiece, “The Tree of Life.” Yet I found the film much more evocative of Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher” in its uncompromising starkness, bracing authenticity and unforced beauty (the premise also carries obvious echoes of “Stand by Me”). The excellent score by Robert Donne (who co-authored the screenplay for Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy”) maintains an ominous tone without ever spelling out the intended emotions for a given scene. Grounding the film are the uniformly superb performances observantly lensed by cinematographer Nick Bentgen. It’s clear that Carbone has a good ear for naturalistic dialogue and the ways in which young people struggle to articulate their needs and desires amidst the testosterone-fueled angst of their peers.
At the film’s core is an outrage at the senseless death of a little boy whose life was cut short after hurtling off a bridge. Did he stumble and fall or did he throw himself off? Was he a victim of abuse at the hands of his cruel father? The film isn’t interested in answering these questions, focusing solely on how the boy’s friends deal with this tragedy. Eric isn’t consoled by the words of a religious man (Clark Middleton, the gravedigger in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2”) who insists the boy’s death was a part of “God’s plan.” How could God allow something so monstrous to happen? Thus, Eric lashes out in rage, while bruising himself in the process. There’s a scene of ritualistic roughhousing that inches dangerously close toward the precipice of lethal violence, as the boys’ mounting anger builds to a head.
Yet for all of its unsettling elements, Carbone’s film is ultimately an ode to the cleansing power of kindness. Both Tommy and Eric have moments toward the end of the film where they are confronted by beings that resemble the sort of monsters that lurk in the dark corners of childhood imaginations. Neither proves to be as vicious as it appears, suggesting that it’s a rite of passage to look “evil” in the eye and see the mortal creature lurking beneath. That’s what growing up is all about.
“Hide Your Smiling Faces” opens at Facets Cinémathèque in Chicago on Friday, April 11th. For tickets, click here.