Film Review: Hide Your Smiling Faces

An atmospheric indie whose lack of narrative momentum is offset by its moody portrait of two young brothers navigating an alternately terrifying and beautiful rural southern landscape.

An auspicious debut that nonetheless feels like the rough-draft template for a future, superior work, Hide Your Smiling Faces is more pensive mood piece than compellingly coherent feature. Set in an unnamed, sleepy rural southern town, writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone’s film focuses on Tommy (Ryan Jones) and his older brother, Eric (Nathan Varnson), who spend their summer roaming and biking around an area of deep, silent woodlands and rotting, dilapidated buildings. A score of unsettling tones and strange noises adds an extra layer of ominous unreality to their casual rides along empty streets and walks along a majestic bridge that used to support train tracks but has now been overrun with weedy grass. Their lazy days come across like dreams blending together, and it soon seems as if the boys are drifting hazily through time, with the filmmaker proving to be uninterested in traditional narrative constraints or concerns.

Eric and Tommy are introduced playfully sparring under an overpass as it rains outside, and that genial roughhousing soon gives way to more rugged hostility, be it the sight of Eric wrestling another boy while kids cheer them on—a ritual of aggression that Tommy will later attempt to duplicate—or a scene in which Eric and Tommy discover dead animals in the ruins of a crumbled forest house. Male violence comingles with decay and death in Hide Your Smiling Faces’ depiction of southern backwoods life, and that marriage becomes even more pronounced when Tommy’s friend Ian (Ivan Tomic)—shortly after getting into trouble with his overtly threatening father (Colm O’Leary) for horsing around with the man’s pistol—is found dead by Eric at the bottom of the bridge.

Rather than kick-starting a proper plot, Ian’s demise is merely a catalyst for Eric and Tommy’s reckoning with mortality—both their own, and that of their friends, especially once Eric’s partner-in-crime Tristan (Thomas Cruz) begins to threaten suicide over his ill-defined unhappiness. Eric shares that misery while Tommy is more curious than despondent over the ferociousness (and fragility) of their lives in this sheltered, rustic environment. As it makes its way toward a serious of showdowns that further underscore the terrifying vulnerability—and powerlessness—of youth, Hide Your Smiling Faces becomes drenched in an atmosphere of adolescent confusion and discontent, one made all the more powerful by Carbone and cinematographer Nicholas Bentgen’s sumptuous panoramas of tree-lined streets and skies filled with menacing clouds.

Carbone’s lack of interest in conventional storytelling renders the action somewhat sluggish and meandering, even as his snapshots of the boys down by a river or wandering through abandoned buildings—with dead animal carcasses often nearby—eventually coalesce into a haunting vision of immature kids trying to navigate a world that makes little sense to them, and in which they’re under constant (and frequently unknown) threats. At times a tad too oblique for its own good, Hide Your Smiling Faces nonetheless casts a potent spell, delivering a disquieting portrait of masculine rage and fear over lives perched on the precipice of an abyss.