In childhood, those magical spaces and feelings of curiosity and wonder; those feelings and urges that could propel you to great heights and even greater adventures, sit so precariously close to what one can only describe as apocalypse: those weighted and unknown, yet utterly consuming spaces of ruin and desolation, ruled by fear and anger and pure destruction. To play in such spaces was to toy with power, perhaps an adult power, something that was tantalizing and terrifying. And yet, the grandest moments of our youths were neither pre, post or of the apocalyptic. They were of no space, or rather this space... the moment. The moment you found a dead bird in a rundown house. The moment you sped down the hill, using your skateboard like a sled. The moment you held your dog, tight in your arms, as you walked into the water, hoping against hope that she could swim.
If you were a child who didn't exclusively live in the city, then perhaps you spent much of your summers in spaces like this. Not spaces of nature, but in nature, wholly and completely in the fantastic.
What Daniel Patrick Carbone's debut feature gets so amazingly and assuredly right compared to Kings Of Summer
(another recent film about youth and nature) is that sense of nature itself. We are not looking at nature, we're not observing or appreciating it, we're encompassed by its alien splendor and its absolute familiarity. In Hide Your Smiling Faces
9-year old Tommy, and his 14-year old brother Eric use the woods and lakes and decades worn paths around their home not as escapes but as spaces to find themselves; to find truth. Yet as we so often forget, truth doesn't always mean answers.
Carbone's languid and equally brooding film charts these paths with an anger and a sadness that is rare to witness in an American film about children. While the plot deals with the aftermath surrounding the death of Tommy's friend Ian, the tragedy that the boys deal with could be almost anything, as such shadows loom so great... that is anything to send these boys into places of doubt and despair. To make them wonder and to make them care.
As Tommy quietly copes with his friend's passing, Eric is confronted with mortality in another way when his own friend talks of suicide. The casual and frank nature in which the kids speak about existential issues is refreshing because it feels so honest, so real. Carbone is a filmmaker who doesn't limit the experience of childhood to the happy highs and crushing lows, or merely those "you don't get me!" dances with parents, but paints a splendid and rich tapestry of youth, harmonious in its complexities. As it goes, truth doesn't always mean answers.
Bringing all these conflicting emotions into a focus is cinematographer Nick Bentgen, who lenses the boys' summer with a brilliance that is often beguiling and breathtaking, not only in its beauty but also in its ugliness. The serene waters of a lake shrouded by warm mists is juxtaposed with the worn-down bridges of America's great railroaded past, clouds looming, holding the place of those heavy feelings. From the opening shot of a snake devouring a salamander, death indeed abounds throughout the picture. From rotting animal corpses to not-so-hidden guns and anger fueled fights between neighborhood boys in fields, death leaves a startling set of ellipses in Carbone's story, and colors the already fine performances by Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnson all the richer.
In Tommy and Eric's conflicting worlds, what isn't said is just as powerful as any words ever uttered. Or perhaps even more so. We get the sense that the brothers' summer continues well after the credits roll, that their complicated lives don't merely mend themselves once back in school, but that these are the moments, for better or for worse, that make the children into men. If that is the message of Hide Your Smiling Faces
it is then a scary proposition, for the last 80 minutes we've been seeing the world through the eyes of children, and to grow up is indeed a horror story worthy of such an ominous title. But wait, must we forget the gentle and kind things too? No. But most of all, there is that other space, that no space as it were, neither pre or post or of the apocalyptic. 9-year old Tommy knows that space well. He may not smile, but it is the space he lives much of his life in. A space, that, even as we grow older, we know well. It is of the moment. And whatever that may bring.Hide Your Smiling Faces opens theatrically in New York on Friday, March 28, and is currently available on iTunes and various VOD platforms.
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