The universe is an infinitely complex mystery. Think of all the unanswered questions that you might have as an adult – the possibility of an afterlife, the empty void that may await instead – and the certainty that one day, inevitably, you will die. The fact that you are a mere speck in this ever-evolving, immeasurably large mass of energy that will, one way or another, re-absorb you when your time comes, is quite a headful. Indeed, if you dwell on stuff like that for too long, you’re bound to go mad.
Though you won’t find the answers to these questions in “Hide Your Smiling Faces”, it might help you remember the time in your life when you first started asking them. Writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone’s vague but intermittently captivating exploration of adolescence, spirituality and mortality is about as elusive with its plot as the meaning of life itself, but it manages to capture the fleeting essence of childhood and the curiosity and confusion that goes along with it. Beginning like an outtake reel from “Stand By Me”, the film follows a group of young New England boys during what seems like a typical summer as they play in abandoned houses, beat the tar out of each other, and poke at dead animals. There’s something cosmic at play here, but Carbone seems intent on having the viewer figure it out for themselves.
When teenager Eric (Nathan Varnson) and his 9-year-old brother Tommy (Ryan Jones) discover the body of their young friend Ian (Ivan Tomic) at the bottom of a bridge, it’s uncertain whether he’d jumped, fallen or been pushed. Only moments before that, they’re all playing in Ian’s yard, when the boy emerges with a handgun he’d taken from the work shed. We assume tragedy is imminent; the kids wrestle around with the gun for a good 30 seconds as if they didn’t know any better before Ian’s father (Colm O’Leary) intervenes, taking the weapon and sending everyone scurrying off safely into the woods. At that point, it seems that their own mortality isn’t at the forefront of their minds.
With Ian’s unexplained death, things change, but not in some dramatic story arc. Morbid curiosity haunts the melancholy-looking Eric, who seems to be an enigma even to himself. His friend Tristan (Thomas Cruz) casually mentions taking his own life while the two are having a lazy day in a rowboat, and later again on the phone, to which Eric responds with aggression. He acts like someone who’s been robbed of those years when a kid’s mind is supposed to be happily unencumbered with such bleak notions, as he tries to make sense of it all, and grows increasingly angry in the process.
“Hide Your Smiling Faces” is nothing if not atmospheric. Robert Donne’s eerie score is reminiscent of the opening sequence in “The Shining”, particularly in a scene when the brothers are gliding down a narrow, serpentine road on a bicycle. It’s a beautiful looking film as well, taking full advantage of its remote wooded location, and cinematographer Nicholas Bentgen gives us a sense of the vastness and obscurity of nature. Dialogue is sparse, and most of the action will take place in the audience’s head, as we’re left to decipher the symbolism imbedded in the brothers’ discoveries; we spend a lot of time on the edge of our seat waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop, giving us plenty of time to contemplate such things. Animals both wild and domestic play a big role in the message that Carbone seems to be trying to convey about karma, and a moment late in the film suggests that Eric has either accepted the fragility of life or has overcome the fear of death. “Hide Your Smiling Faces” works best if approached like a meditation on your own childhood, and if you can fill in the blanks, you might end up with something profound. Otherwise, you might just feel like you watched some kids wandering around in the woods for 80 minutes.
“Hide Your Smiling Faces” is available on VOD and iTunes on March 25th, and will be in select theaters Friday, March 28th.
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Chris Kies, Christina Starbuck, Colm O'Leary, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Hide Your Smiling Faces, Ivan Tomic, Movie Review, Nathan Varnson, Nicholas Bentgen, Robert Donne, Ryan Jones, Thomas Cruz, Tribeca Film