Keeping it Real: I Smile Back

Mental illness is no stranger to the big screen. Ever since A Beautiful Mind swept the Oscars in 2002 for its powerful story about economist John Nash who had schizophrenia, dozens of films have been made about the topic. Our current golden age of TV has featured numerous characters with mental health issues that complicate their lives. Some of these characters overdramatize issues and misinform audiences. Others help us understand that the struggle is real. On this blog, I'll review portrayals of mental health on the big and small screens and we’ll discuss how it shapes our cultural POV.

I Smile Back

In I Smile Back, Sarah Silverman plays Laney, an upper middle class suburban mother of two who has everything, including mental illness. She is off her medication and on a bender of self-destruction, drinking and snorting coke when no one is looking, having an affair with a family friend, and generally raising hell. We don't know her medical history, but her psychiatrist she asks her why she stopped taking lithium, which suggest bipolar disorder. 

Despite Sarah’s stellar performance and the endless charm of Josh Charles who plays her husband, I Smile Back is at times hard to watch. And not just because of the graphic sex scenes which make Girls look tame by comparison.

The film does a great job of showing how substance abuse and mental illness can co-exist. In fact, one third of all people with mental illness also struggle with drugs and alcohol. It’s even more of a problem for women than men.

I also really appreciate a film about a mother suffering from depression that isn’t postpartum. Although Laney is such a trainwreck that you may wonder how she held it together until her children were in grade school, her relapse is an excellent reminder that depression can be cyclical. Most people with depression will have four to five episodes during their life.

Laney’s relationship with her husband Bruce also strikes a super honest tone. At one point he accuses her of not loving him, rationalizing that their relationship woes  must have been the reason she stopped taking her meds. It painfully demonstrates how mental instability can ruin your life and hurt the ones you love. It is as real as it gets.

How You Can Watch It: Rent now on Amazon ($6.99), buy on iTunes ($17.99) or get the DVD on February 23