Sidewalk review: “Hide Your Smiling Faces” (****½)

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Ryan Jones stars in “Hide Your Smiling Faces”

Having heard great things out of Berlinale and Tribeca, Daniel Patrick Carbone’s “Hide Your Smiling Faces” was one of the most alluring prospects at this year’s Sidewalk Film Festival. Shot in northern New Jersey, an incredible, rustic beauty that isn’t usually associated with the state—at least the northern half—is evident in every frame. The landscape is wild and overgrown, looking as though it could have been shot on the slopes of Lookout Mountain. The setting is as much a main player as the two young stars, Nathan Varnson and Ryan Jones (playing brothers Eric and Tommy, respectively), who rarely give you a moment to turn your eyes away from their lead.

Unconsumed and completely unaffected by the sedentary, video game culture of today, we watch as these two teenage brothers wrestle, throw rocks and play with dead animals. I was taken back to the days of my youth; my brother and I running through the woods in our cut-off jean shorts, drinking water from the creek and having to be checked for ticks when we got home—our endless summer days melting together. Both the story and the dialogue are so authentic, it feels improvised at times—and very well could have been during the more casual ‘play’ scenes.

Nick Bentgen’s photography at once feels both down-home and extraordinary. The dimly-lit rural mystique—often captured from just beyond the perspective of one or both of the brothers—is strikingly beautiful but accessible. Any audience will be left enamored by the natural beauty on screen, and not overwhelmed by the saturated, over-processed cinematography we are so often force-fed. An early shot of a snake slithering out of its old skin feels as commonplace in the film as it does rich with symbolism.

The shedding of skin is most definitely a significant piece of imagery. When Ian, one of Tommy’s friends, is found dead beneath an old railroad bridge, the boys—and the community as a whole—are forced to confront death and what it means when it comes at such a young age. Aside from being the one who discovered Ian’s body, Eric seems to be somewhat unaffected by the tragedy. It’s not until a breathy phone conversation with his friend Tristan that Eric is really forced to look death in the face. How serious Tristan is about committing suicide, we aren’t exactly sure, but Eric does his best to talk him down, despite obviously never having entertained such thoughts himself. Seeing talk of discontentment as futile, Eric seems to understand the temporary permanence of adolescence. It is only under the weight of the burdens others place on him that he cracks, acting out in dissatisfaction with that which is beyond his control.

Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnson play Tommy and Eric, respectively,
in “Hide Your Smiling Faces”

The performances by Varnson and Jones join the class belonging to fellow recent teenage powerhouse turns from Hunter McCracken in “The Tree of Life” and Tye Sheridan in “Mud.” Varnson is particularly of note here, but the two must be taken as two halves of a whole. An invisible Venn diagram could be drawn around the two types of people they portray—impressionable and not impressionable. Both of these young performers are ones to watch.

A skin-tight tension is present from the first frame; a strong sense of foreboding building in every scene, but never overpowering the film as a whole. When our story finally reaches its troubling zenith during one of the town boys’ wrestling matches, we only feel resolve for a brief moment before a second climax—and then a third—shake us to our core. I can’t recall another film in which three equally powerful, sequential scenes all serve as the film’s peak—making for an incredible cinematic experience.

“Hide Your Smiling Faces” quietly speaks volumes about death and youth. Although the films are very different structurally, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another one of my favorites, John Henry Summerour’s “Sahkanaga.” Both films deal with bereavement in small towns in such different ways, but in a fantasy world, I would have these two filmmakers (who are also friends) team up and create a third film in an unofficial trilogy.

Carbone’s feature debut is a wondrous achievement. Perhaps a perfect example of what all ‘boys will be boys’ entails, “Hide Your Smiling Faces” is easily one of the best independent American films in recent memory.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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