Hide Your Smiling Faces Review

(3.5 STARS)

With Hide Your Smiling Faces, first-time writer-director Daniel Patrick Carbone has crafted a breathtaking, heartbreaking ode to growing up. Over just 80 minutes, we watch youth and innocence snatched away from a pair of too-young souls as they wrestle with death in many incarnations, and while the specter of mystery hangs over the entire Malick-esque film, Carbone eschews all that—staying the whole way with his boys—in favor of something that’s intensely relatable even as it tells a story unique to its world.

Just like Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Hide Your Smiling Faces opens with an innocuous but haunting shot of nature. Instead of an alligator slipping into an algae-choked pond, we get a snake slowly devouring another creature. It’s our first brush with death in a film filled with it. Our protagonists—Eric (Nathan Varnson) and his younger brother, Tommy (Ryan Jones)—spend their days wandering the woods of their unnamed Northeastern town, where they encounter a dead blackbird and a pile of house-pet corpses, among other things.

Eric, tragically, also stumbles across the body of one of Tommy’s best friends, Ian (Ivan Tomic). At the bottom of a bridge, near a river, there aren’t any clues about what happened, but it understandably affects both previously carefree boys deeply. For Tommy, he becomes afraid of just about everything—the water, the woods, and particularly Ian’s father (Colm O’Leary), whom he saw scare the life out of Ian mere hours before the boy’s death.

Eric’s troubles, meanwhile, are doubled when his best friend, Tristan (Thomas Cruz), talks about how he sometimes wishes he was dead. Terrified and angry that he’s been burdened with trying to talk sense into an unpredictable teenage boy, he acts out. He fights, talks back to his parents, breaks into Ian’s father’s house, and begins carrying around a gun.

Hide Your Smiling Faces is both of nature and very naturalistic. While the Malick comparison is an apt one in many ways—such as the film’s almost exclusively outdoor setting—Faces deviates from that template in some big ways. Music is almost non-existent in this world. Dialogue is also scarce, but when it takes place, it’s in the form of actual conversation, not ethereal whispers from a narrator off the screen. All this is to say the film is very much grounded, and as such, the stakes play out right in front of you. There are implications of grander things at play—a universality in theme and arc that extends beyond these kids, this place—but Hide Your Smiling Faces succeeds first and foremost as an authentically-acted and lovingly-directed piece about two kids at a crossroads.

The film’s dramatic high point is a tense, ultimately devastating phone conversation during which Tristan’s fate seems to rely almost exclusively on how Eric answers a couple simple questions. Because Carbone (as well as his inexperienced but exceptionally talented actors) fosters such a strong connection between us and the characters, you can’t help but place yourself in Eric’s shoes at the moment. And because one young body has already made an appearance at that point in the picture, there’s no guaranteeing the call will end the way you desperately want it to.

Another appropriate point of comparison is David Gordon Green’s George Washington, which follows kids of a similar age doing similar things and dealing with similar tragedy before going off in a bizarrely supernatural direction. Hide Your Smiling Faces stays on planet Earth, thankfully, and the results—which ultimately cross a coming-of-age tale with elements of horror—are pretty spectacular. They also signal everyone involved—particularly Carbone—as serious talents to watch.

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