Though unintentional in its timeliness, it’s a fortunate coincidence that Dominick Grillo just gave us a refresher on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. While I don’t agree wholeheartedly with his assessment of Malick’s recent work (and in fact hold the admittedly slower though arguably more narratively cohesive To the Wonder in higher regard than the broadly celebrated The Tree of Life), a familiarity with Malick and his style is almost essential when beginning to talk about Hide Your Smiling Faces because rookie writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone has made a movie that unabashedly apes his stylistic quirks. Unfortunately, the mimicry comes without much of the purpose you see in Malick’s filmmaking, and to one of Dominick’s points, with even less plot.
The film centers on two brothers in an undefined time and space – it’s a presumably small, possibly dying town surrounded by dense woods in all directions, and the story takes place at some point after the late 90s, but it’s hard to get any more specific than this. A portable CD player shows up from time to time to give us a modicum of temporal grounding, but it’s weird how much the movie seems to avoid pinning itself to any particular setting. Anyways, the elder brother discovers the body of the younger’s friend, who has either fallen or thrown himself from a tall, overgrown bridge for a train that no longer runs. Ignoring any stylistic…similarities, even here the film seems to invite comparisons to The Tree of Life, recalling most of elements of its plot, though in a slightly new light.
The movie’s focus is unflinchingly on these fraternal figures and a few of their closest friends, with the few adults in the film getting very little screen time. Which is ok because they characterization of these figures is pretty terrible when they are around. It seems a bit like the film is trying to portray adults from a the perspective of teenagers (the younger brother is maybe 12, while the elder is probably about 17), meaning that they lash out irrationally and otherwise behave in some pretty baffling ways, but the filmmaking is so free of artifice it’s impossible to view the interactions between adult and child as anything but genuine to the characters of each. Particularly challenging is the father of the dead boy. He’s a man that’s pretty easily angered, for certain, but he also seems devoid of other vices or causes that might have made him this way. The issues with the brothers’ parents might be overlooked for their insignificance to the plot, but this man can’t be because it’s after a very strange reaction to one of his son’s misdeeds that the boy turns up dead.
This death is ostensibly an excuse for each brother to encounter the idea of his own mortality, a theme that’s hammered on again and again through the movie, but it’s questionable whether the film even needed a human death to achieve this end. There’s a constant parade of dead animals that are found and often played with in the film, and not in any interesting surrealist sort of way, where necrotic animal figures might come to life an interact with the living boys. The closest the movie comes to this is an opening sequence where the younger brother and two friends (including the one who is to die) find a dead crow and play with it for a while. Coupled with this is the fact that the older brother’s best friend becomes conveniently suicidal after the other boy’s death, because the older brother is also conveniently in denial about considering the possibility of death.
That’s where the biggest problem with the movie lies: as much as it also doesn’t feel like it’s leading to anywhere, it also doesn’t feel like it’s coming from anywhere. This is where the lack of a definite setting actually becomes more than an annoyance. There’s only a little time spent developing what the main characters or their lives were like before the tragedy, and the movie lacks enough scenes where something actually happens to develop a sense of the characters afterwards, either. When the movie ramps up to a climax, the action taking place still feels random and empty, not infused with the meaning the movie is so obviously striving to communicate with each frame.
That’s actually where this movie almost tricked me into liking it. There’s a constant sense of potential running through the film, that through its minimalism there might be something profound. It completely commits to both its stylistic quirks and its moribund focus, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that made me curious about the movie, albeit with ever-decreasing expectation of return, throughout the entire 80 minute runtime. I don’t think the actors are great, but the way the movie is shot doesn’t require any sort of well developed, nuanced performance because – like I’ve been saying – the filmmaking is so entirely without artifice. Not without art, although it’s a terribly unrefined art, but without artifice.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
I refuse to get too far down on a film that very clearly has a vision and executes on that vision. For all the rough edges in the characterization, acting, and storytelling that are apparent in Hide Your Smiling Faces, it does feel like Daniel Patrick Carbone basically made the film he set out to make. That’s makes it an interesting work to encounter. The bigger problems come from the limitations in the vision for the movie itself; there’s insufficient narrative and character to carry the sort of thematic significance Carbone wants to deliver, and it makes for a movie that feels very full of itself while at the same time being empty of a unique personality. It’s a movie that desperately wants to be great, but in an all-or-nothing approach ends up possessing more nothing than all.