Daniel Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces can be compared to Stand By Me in several ways. In both films, boys find the dead body of another boy in the woods. There are also meaningful interactions with woodland creatures and nature, dysfunctional parents, and the tethering bond of brotherhood, but despite the parallels between the two films, Hide Your Smiling Faces is its own entity. It is deeply meditative about life and death, about the relationship between humans and nature. And all of these meditations, very intriguingly so, come from two young boys. Perhaps the most admirable thing about the film is that it never falls victim to what’s expected. It veers away from typical coming-of-age tropes and thinks beyond the norm.
Brothers Eric (Nathan Varnson) and Tommy (Ryan Jones) live with their loving parents in rural New Jersey. Eric is in the budding stages of being a teenager and is appropriately surly to the younger Tommy, shooing him out of his room and keeping his distance. Though their dynamic changes when Eric and his friends discover Tommy’s friend, Ian, lying dead in the forest, apparently after having fallen off the bridge above. Ian’s father (Colm O’Leary) is a single parent and an outwardly violent person, so he immediately arouses suspicion from the boys, especially since he always threatens to shoot their dog, Daisy. As Tommy mourns Ian’s loss and as Eric experiences a rift with a suicidal friend, the two brothers come together as they act out against Ian’s father and find solace in the thick woods surrounding their home.
One of the most immediately striking things about Hide Your Smiling Faces is how utterly beautiful the film looks thanks to cinematography by Nick Bentgen. The lush forests are lovingly photographed with sun-dappled green leafy trees. Yet the color is not saturated. It is more muted and shadowy, adding to the layers of dread and foreboding that surround every action. The woods, instead, are a place where the brothers can escape reality and think about the darker issues that plague them, mainly the death that they’ve just experienced.
From the film’s first sequence where Tommy and his friends find a dead bird in a ramshackle shed, this foreboding is woven throughout the film. The kids initially think of death as something to be trifled with, though the bird is certainly a harbinger of things to come. When Ian dies, they are forced to confront mortality head-on, even while it is – and has always been — all around them in nature.
There’s also a pit of dead dogs and cats in the woods, a friend who often talks of suicide and a father’s gun that ends up in the boys’ hands. With that and a mass of foreshadowing lurking in the dense New Jersey forests, it is impossible to simply sit back and contemplate existence alongside Eric and Tommy. There are many moments of levity, striking a perfect tone that makes it incredibly engaging, but there is always a palpable sense that something can go horribly wrong at any moment. That tactic from Carbone draws you in early and never lets you go.
Reflecting the natural beauty of the film’s setting are the subtle and realistic performances from the two young leads, Varnson and Jones, both making their feature film debuts. It is easy, it seems, for a lot of adolescent actors to read as “actors” in films, with practiced facial expressions and affected mannerisms. These boys, however, read as real people on screen. They completely mesh with their surroundings and with each other and are able to elicit pure, deeply stirring emotions in their scenes. Carbone really understands his youthful subjects here – he puts them in the mature situation of coping with loss and finality, and they deal with it with great intelligence instead of sugary precociousness. Varnson and Jones display true, unadulterated talent in this film and it is quite refreshing to watch kids acting like kids instead of how a misinformed adult thinks how kids should act.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons to Stand By Me. And yes, there are many. But Hide Your Smiling Faces is a unique and thoughtful film. It defies the expected and provides somewhat of a neorealist take on how young boys experience death, their experiences fully entwined in the nature that surrounds them.
The Upside: The film is beautifully photographed on a limited budget and the performances, especially from the two young leads, are breathtakingly emotive and yet very realistic. The plot also veers away from the expected, which is always strongly encouraged in a film.
The Downside: Comparisons to Stand By Me are inevitable, which prevents it somewhat from wholly standing out on its own.
On the Side: As a native New Jerseyian, it’s really refreshing to see a film that displays the natural beauty of my home state, rather than depicting it as some terrible cultural wasteland.