DIR/WRI: Daniel Patrick Carbone • PRO: Jordan Bailey-Hoover, Patrick Carbone, Matthew Petock, Zachary Shedd • DOP: Nick Bentgen • ED: Daniel Patrick Carbone• DES: Charlotte Royer • MUS:Robert Donne • CAST: Ryan Jones, Nathan Varnson, Colm O’Leary
Tommy (Jones) and Eric (Varnson), two brothers at different stages of adolescence, live in a small, forgotten part of America. Their days are spent wandering aimlessly around the many abandoned houses in their neighbourhood, swimming or just wrestling with other kids; seemingly the only outlet for the youth to vent their frustrations and boredom. When Tommy’s friend Ian (Tomic) dies tragically, the boys begin to confront their own emerging issues to do with life, death, depression and the almost suffocating weight of their small-town life and its lack of prospects. Beyond that, there is little in the way of plot to summarise as the film is largely a series of episodes showing how they spend their time through the lens of one of the most unflinchingly unromanticised portrayals of youth you’ll likely see this year.
Above all else, what this film persistently conveys is emptiness. There is very little dialogue and what little of it there is consists of short back-and-forth exchanges of nothing in particular. The scenery is vast, expansive and largely devoid of life. We frequently see the various kids in the film playing (or really, just hanging aimlessly around) in decrepit, empty houses and structures. Even on a spiritual level, when one character tries to console Eric at Ian’s wake with some trite ‘The Lord moves in mysterious ways’ platitudes, he reacts totally unaffected by it. Even the camerawork and editing of that scene treat the spiel as the empty rhetoric one simply expects to hear at a wake, even though no one really believes it.
It is against this vacuous existence that the film chooses to explore what it means to be young and, without trying to sound too lofty here, the human condition for those with too much time to contemplate it. It’s undeniably refreshing to see a film centred on young people that isn’t a gushy, smiley ‘celebration of youth’, filled to bursting with quirkiness and indie-rock music about being alternative or whatever (I’m sorry but has anyone else seen the trailer for God Help the Girl? oy vey), and rather to see what it’s like being a bored kid in a no-name town with nothing to do and little to look forward to. Emotionally and psychologically, it’s easily one of the most realistic depictions and examinations of what it can be like growing up, warts and all.
It’s a film not big on sentiment (though a scene close to the end involving a grizzly bear comes dangerously close) or conclusions. Rather, the film presents situations and lets the characters react naturally and without judgement and it’s slightly horrifying for this very reason. The sustained lack of theatricality makes the low-key depictions of issues such as animal abuse, the beginnings of self-harm and the difficulty of expressing depression and suicidal thoughts without actually being able to grasp what those are, all the more visceral and gut-wrenching. Even the film’s most (arguably, only) tender scene comes in the form of two of the younger kids clearly trying to make sense of their own emerging sexuality. In a film that’s not so much the loss of innocence as a big sign pointing into the black hole where innocence should be, it’s a tender little moment that feels necessary to demonstrate what true innocence looks like in all its endearing awkwardness before the film continues its journey through the wastes of isolated, rural America.
Despite all this, it is worth noting that the film looks beautiful. The cinematography is rich and makes the most of its setting, filled as it is with visually sumptuous decay. What’s more impressive is how it depicts nature though. From its opening shot the film is always quick to remind us that for all the innate beauty in the world, nature is dangerous, unfeeling and indifferent toward us. The sparse soundtrack further reinforces the mood of the film with its low, unsettling ambience that creates a soundscape more akin to what you’d expect in a post-apocalypse movie than an adolescent drama.
Being a film with such a strong aversion to any form of catharsis means that recommending it sounds like a form of encouraged masochism. It’s certainly not going to win any prizes for being the ‘feel-good film of the summer’ but this is a point in its favour. It demonstrates a maturity and respect for the young characters it’s portraying (and in an ideal world, the teenagers who should see it) by not shying away from the occasional bleakness even young people can experience. It’s definitely not for everyone but worth seeking out if you don’t mind some abyss-gazing.
Hide Your Smiling Faces is released on 1st Sugust 2014