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Non-Review Review: Hide Your Smiling Faces

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

Kids these days, am I right? Hide Your Smiling Faces feels like an eighty-eight minute extended catalogue of various fears and insecurities about the children growing up in today’s world. Following the tragic death of a young boy, Hide Your Smiling Faces focuses its attention on the young kid’s closest friend and that friend’s older brother – exploring their different emotional reactions to the loss. Writer and director Daniel Patrick Carbone adopts a naturalistic approach to dialogue, trying to lend Hide Your Smiling Faces an authenticity or realism.

Unfortunately, the film is simply too dull for its own good, mistaking inertia for pensiveness and inactivity for pensiveness. It seems like Hide Your Smiling Faces spends most of its runtime trying to convince the audience – and itself – that less is more. Sadly, sometimes less is less.

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To be fair, there is a stark appeal to the drama here – it’s interesting to take a muted and subdued look at the response to a tragedy like the loss of a young child. It’s too easy to get caught up in the melodrama of it all – swept up in a narrative about a small community moving through the stages of grief. It’s worth taking a subversive look at that; Hide Your Smiling Faces explores the reactions of two boys who are affected by the loss, but not necessarily in the most conventional of ways.

There are moments when it seems like Hide Your Smiling Faces might work. On hearing of the loss, both boys struggle to conceal smirks from their parents – a rather surreal reaction to the death of an acquaintance. A few of the long passages of silence or empty conversation do hint at a deep emotional life unfolding beneath the surface – as if we are only seeing glimpses of what is really going on.

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Sadly, these all feel too fleeting and too irregular. While the muted reaction of the two lead characters is the entire point, it seems rather weird that the whole community gets over the loss so quickly. There are a few hints of community interaction here or there. There’s one scene of a minister speaking to the two boys about the death. (“Did God want him to die?”) There is a scene featuring an impromptu memorial built to the young boy. However, there’s no hint of any on-going grieving process outside our two central characters.

Similarly, there’s no sense of any adults existing in this world, even though Hide Your Smiling Faces crosses the “parental intervention threshold” several times. At one point, the boys disappear for what must be at least a day and a half. The only reference to the existence of people who might notice their absence is the throwaway line “do you think mom will be mad?” We never find out, because there’s absolutely no indication that anybody cared the kids were sleeping rough that night. Dealing with such a basic plot point would take time away from all those meaningful silences.

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This problem is compounded by the simplicity of Hide Your Smiling Faces. For all the ambiguity it fosters around the two lead characters, the movie is decidedly heavy-handed in its message. The older brother, the one least affected by the death, listens to loud music on his CD player. The two brothers seem to either watch violent movies or play violent video games on the television at home. (Although we never see what’s on television, we do hear it.) The movie makes a point of the ready availability of handguns within the community.

The result is a film that feels a little bit too much like it’s pandering – playing into that most generic of pop culture moralism that suggests loud music and video games are all you need to turn kids into sociopaths. And, in case the audience, doesn’t get the message, we’re treated to several sequences of the elder child playing with animal carcasses. It feels decidedly cliché, as if Hide Your Smiling Faces is charting the path of least resistance. In that respect, the movie feels like a cranky elderly relative. You want disaffected youngsters? it asks rhetorically, well aware that you don’t, not really. It’s the music and television and video games!

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The film also heavily reinforces the idea that this apathy is learned. Discussing the conduct of the elder brother, the boys’ father advises the younger sibling, “That’s not you.” Yet there’s a very clear recurring motif of just how much kids learn from others. The younger kid listens to his brother’s music, and even tries to imitate one of his brother’s crueller pranks using the family dog. For a film that takes such pride in not explicitly articulating these ideas, it sure labours the point.

This is the most heavy-handed sort of finger wagging, aimed at familiar and expected sources. There are some arguments to be made about the culture in which we raise our children, but Hide Your Smiling Faces goes for the softest possible targets. It feels very generic, overly familiar. For a move that really doesn’t rely too heavily on plot, a significant amount of Hide Your Smiling Faces feels contrived and awkward. There’s a subplot involving the elder brother’s friend working through his own issues that feels incredibly convenient.

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There are moments of stark beauty in Hide Your Smiling Faces. Unfortunately, these are punctuated by tired and generic plotting and moralising.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 2

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