Hide Your Smiling Faces
It seems like the general mission statement of your usual coming-of-age drama is to take the lighter fare of growing up, all those moments that we took for granted until our wistful recollections years later, and pull back the curtain on just how important they always were. The first kisses, the first fights, the first sips of beer - these are the elements that have lined the genre since before American Graffiti and Breaking Away. But in earnest, there is no cookie cutter mold for the coming-of-age experience. Romance and high jinks could well take a backseat - or fall out of the picture altogether - when your childhood is shaped by something like the subject matter of Hide Your Smiling Faces, an altogether inviting and merciless picture about the sudden death of a young boy, and the aftermath as experienced by two of his close friends.
Ostensibly, this is a movie about death - about what it means to lose a friend, a child, a neighbor. About what it means to understand, for the very first time, the idea of mortality, of impermanence, of loss. And through the often silent (though never to a fault) journeys of two brothers, young Tommy (Ryan Jones) and preteen Eric (Nathan Varnson), we see a version of death not often granted to the screen. Director Daniel Patrick Carbone doesn't seem too strained to avoid the theatrical, a weighty humanity sewn effortlessly into the every move, breath, and rare word ventured by the suffering boys. We're not treated to Rabbit Hole-esque diatribes or Oscar bait explosions in a movie whose subject matter might beckon the like. We're carted through an impressively effective journey inside the boys as they battle not only with their pain, but with the inscrutable parameters set for their expression of it.
But the struggles of Tommy and Eric aren't limited to the time frame of human grief. Just as coming-of-age movies that present kisses and fights as representative glimpses into an endless stretch of the human condition, the brothers' experience with death is truly a bold rock with which their road to maturity is paved. The tragedy brings to the forefront issues that won't fade over time: the stinging confusion inherent in figuring out how to feel, what to think, and what to show about everything. Scenes involving Tommy's own gateway into the kissing world, and Eric's sudden rift with a friend he thought he understood (and about whom, in losing that understanding, he no longer knows how to feel) highlight just how expansive these themes are. They, in fact, might be the only permanent thing there is.
Even in its sincerity, Hide Your Smiling Faces doesn't fall shy of cinematic - shot in the beautiful New Jersey woodlands, we explore defunct bridges, silent dirt roads, and rotting old houses that feel impossibly lived in, courtesy of just how closely we are welcomed to the boys themselves.
A story about life and death alike, Hide Your Smiling Faces handles both in a fashion you won't often see in film. In its tackling of the former - of growth and discovery - it is haunting, harsh, and sad. In the latter, it isn't afraid to access joy, hypocrisy, and beauty. On each side of its impossibly vast fence, Hide Your Smiling Faces gives us something touching, tremendous, and new. Mending the two, we wind up with something altogether beautiful.