sat 16/02/2019

Hide Your Smiling Faces | reviews, news & interviews

Hide Your Smiling Faces

Hide Your Smiling Faces

Impressive, enigmatic debut from American indie director Daniel Patrick Carbone

Difficult coming-of-age: brothers Tommy (Ryan Jones, top) and Eric (Nathan Varnson)

Daniel Patrick Carbone is a director who makes his viewers work. That's not meant to sound intimidating at all, because the rewards of his first feature Hide Your Smiling Faces are considerable. But part of its achievement is that by the end we feel that we have assembled the truth, or rather a part of a truth, behind its spare, elliptical story rather in the way the director did in making it.

Atmosphere and nuance are far stronger than narrative or dialogue. The atmosphere comes from a rural landscape of woods and a river on the edge of a barely depicted small town community which, given that location is never specified, we can only guess may be somewhere in New England (in fact Carbone shot the film around his childhood home town in provincial New Jersey). A considerable part of the film has passed before we even learn the names of its main characters, guessing only by the dynamics of their relationship that the two leads are brothers: Tommy (Ryan Jones), who must be a bit younger than ten, and Eric (Nathan Varnson), who’s a few years older, stronger and taller. It’s the summer, because they’re out of school and roaming the countryside, either in the uneasy company of other kids – all boys, female presence in the film being notable by its absence – or more frequently on their own. The adult world impacts on them only rarely, with one particular, powerful exception.

It’s a markedly original take on that familiar trope, the coming-of-age film

The two boys are exploring their world, or rather in some way discovering it, as if for the first time (which makes us wonder whether they are new to the place, recently arrived from somewhere else). There’s a ruined house where we see them rooting around in the film’s opening scene, turning their discoveries – a dead bird, for instance – into some sort of fetishes (other dead animals will appear later). Keeping them company here is Tommy’s playmate Ian, who has an obviously troubled relationship with his reclusive father that casts a shadow of threat over the proceedings which will only heighten as the film progresses. There’s a lake (its surrounding landscape, pictured below right), and a high disused railway bridge running over a river, with atmospheric arches (another "found" environment, rather than a created set, pictured below left); both become key locations in the film’s limited topography, the river as the scene of the film’s only decisive event, though it’s one that, typically, we don’t actually see happen. Instead, we’re left puzzling for ourselves over what might really have taken place.

It’s a necessary spoiler to reveal that the event concerned is a death, and its impact in this loose community of kids, and for the brothers especially, becomes the centre of the film, releasing a slurry of dark and worrying thoughts, heightening an already undefined sense of dread. The wider community, in the only scene in which we see it, offers a rather creepy “God moves in mysterious ways” take on what has happened, as if to confirm that this is no healthy place; the reactions of the kids are even darker. (There’s no hint of any police presence here, not to mention psychologists, who, if we were living rather than watching this film, would be the first people we'd hope to be summoned.)

When we see the brothers’ life at home, its dark interiors contrast with the fecundity of the nature outside (both are beautifully captured in Nick Bentgen’s rich widescreen cinematography: director Carbone has also worked in that capacity, and his visual sensibility shows). Dinner conversations with their barely characterised parents are sparse and monosyllabic: Hide Your Smiling Faces is a film of few words, its long scenes of silence broken most often by a rush of wind or some other sound of nature intruding into the soundtrack.

It’s a markedly original take on that familiar trope, the coming-of-age film, though it subverts its genre given that we’re not sure at its conclusion whether any childhood rubicon has been crossed: the last thing Carbone does is spell things out. That puts Hide Your Smiling Faces a long way away from films like Stand By Me, with which some critics have nevertheless compared it, and much closer to the likes of other boyhood films like Lynn Ramsay’s Glasgow-set Ratcatcher, and even more so to Russian director Andrei Zvagintsev’s first film The Return, another story of brotherly tribulation by forest and water. That’s high praise indeed, which Carbone’s film more than merits, both for the outstanding performances he draws from his two non-professional young actors, and a visual atmosphere impressive not least for the fact that its budget (partly drawn from Kickstarter) was surely limited. The American independent film world has an undisputed new talent in its midst.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Hide Your Smiling Faces

The American independent film world has an undisputed new talent in its midst


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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