Most of us are frightened of dying because we don’t know what it means to live. We don’t know how to live, therefore we don’t know how to die. As long as we are frightened of life we shall be frightened of death. — J. Krishnamurti, from Freedom from the Known
The entanglement of life and death would be so much easier to understand if life were only ever bliss and death was only tragedy. In Hide Your Smiling Faces, two teenage brothers hint at a semblance of shamelessness in the face of death. They share a giggle behind the backs of their parents who are lamenting the untimely death of a playmate of the younger brother. With this slight moment, director Daniel Patrick Carbone exposes something quite profound about the relationship between life and death. Throughout his debut feature, he uses moments that subvert dialogue and narrative in order to speak to the sublime and varied might of the great inevitable.
It’s not like death is not funny (look at the work of Woody Allen, which respects its power while finding humor in its dread). Why the death of a boy appears funny to these kids, at that moment, is never revealed by this film, nor does it need to be. With his impressive debut feature film, Carbone is able to do something with visuals that only few do with words, such as philosophers Krishnamurti and the more accessible Alan Watts (read more about him in my profile on the band STRFKR). Carbone has been compared to Terrence Malick, but I would add the more minimalist and sometimes humorous film, Le Quattro Volte (read my review).
With a run time of only 80 minutes, Hide Your Smiling Faces is a brief but dazzling little movie full of mystery and atmosphere that subtly seduces the viewer to relate with aimless youth by not dwelling on narrative. It follows the two brothers, Eric (Ryan Jones) and Tommy (Nathan Varnson), whose names you do not learn until much later in the film. Though their ages are never disclosed and neither is shown in school, Tommy could be in middle school and Eric in high school. They often speak in questions. They seem to wile away time outside of their rustic home in the nature of rural New Jersey (we only know the location thanks to the film’s end credits). Technology is hidden from the picture, beyond a portable CD player, which could place these kids in an alternate era, probably the early 1990s. Even their plain clothing and crew cuts set them in a place out of the current era. These are all visual clues to keep the viewer focused on the film’s theme, which is established early on with an extended opening shot of a snake gradually consuming a lifeless salamander between some undulating breaths.
Death and decay appear over and over in scenes that show the boys vibrantly living it up, but it’s not excess so much as visceral urgency. They break into an abandoned home to punch through decaying walls. The brothers discover a mysterious pile of dead pets in the woods, including dogs and a cat. The threat of violence emerges during play wrestling and when one the youngest boys gets ahold of his father’s gun.
There’s a reckless, immature yet sincere quality to these boys’ relationships. There are no young girls brought into the narrative, but there are still expressions of love and tenderness. In back-to-back scenes, Eric and Tommy have intimate moments with friends. In the first scene, it’s night, and Tristan (Thomas Cruz), the only friend Eric sometimes has alone time with, cryptically confesses to him over the phone, “I just don’t want to be here anymore … no one likes me here.” Eric responds with hesitation: “I do.” It’s only after Tristan coaxes him with some terse questions that Eric somewhat painfully admits, “I like you. You’re my friend.” In the following scene, during the day, Tommy proposes to one of his friends they practice kissing with a piece of transparent acetate between their faces. “So you don’t wonder what it feels like?” Tommy tells his friend, before they do it and laugh it off agreeing, “This is pretty weird.” Throughout the film, Carbone’s script captures the complexity of repressed expression between these young people. He reveals a deep yearning to connect below superficial actions.
Carbone seems more interested in presenting these profound moments of imperfect human connections as vignettes rather than deeply explored storylines. They therefore take on an impressionistic air that many in the audience might relate with. He leaves it up to the audience to fill in the gaps with feeling and thought. That’s not to say the film is not expressive and warm. Carbone has more experience in his filmography as a cinematographer than directing (he directed one short in 2008, besides this film, according to his IMDB page, but has six cinematography credits), and it shows in the best way. From one scene to another he presents arresting, intimate images through the lensing of Nick Bentgen. They position the camera at the younger boys’ eye level, so you are there, on the floor in the bedroom with them, light shining into the room from a window above.
Despite the rather extended opening sequence, the film never feels as though it drags. Bentgen’s camera finds plenty of dynamic images to appreciate. Sometimes they are distant and obscure, rich with wonder. There are no pans or zooms, only an opening to a lush landscape that hints at layers of imagery and sometimes mystery. He does not shoot dreamily like Malick’s current cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. He shoots more intimately, drawing you in close to the characters without indulgent close-ups. If there is a dreamlike quality to the film, it comes out in the editing, which is more associative than straight up narrative. Like the directing and the script, Carbone is also the sole editor of this film, which shows how much control he had over the final product.
There’s hardly ever any music to take away from the film’s naturalistic sensibility. Something that sounds like death metal rumbles out of a pair of headsets Tommy borrows from Eric. Beyond that muffled diegetic din, the only time Carbone consciously uses extradiegetic music comes when the brothers ride a bicycle they share. The score is a spare atmospheric, droning soundscape by Robert Donne, who is probably best known as a founding member of Labradford, a post-rock/drone-rock band from Virginia that emerged in the early ‘90s. The melodic hum ebbs and flows, as the boys cover a seemingly expansive landscape both full of lush forests and also— one never is allowed to forgets— the threat of death.
Carbone has chosen to work with rather inexperienced actors. It keeps the interaction between the boys genuine and casual. It harnesses that special power within boyhood that still seethes with potential and a desire for expression in an unencumbered manner. That said, the movie has three or four instances where the acting becomes visible due to a sense of self-consciousness by these actors. But then the camera offers another impressive, quiet visual moment that cancels out this glance behind the curtain, as when the deceased boy and Tommy share a disconnected moment in time with the carapace of the same dead bug. Both have turns delicately holding the translucent exoskeleton of the beetle against the light. Through association they are connected as death is infused with light. It’s a beautiful moment layered with the complexity of life and death.
Light and darkness is a huge part of this film. Carbone proves a daring young voice in the independent cinema world who understands how to allow visuals to not only tell the tale but express something beyond language. A film like this is far beyond notions of coming-of-age, as it ends with these kids having a lot left to learn. It’s refreshing to experience a movie that can settle into expression of the feeling of growing up while offering the taste of potential, instead of some neat, distancing complete package. Hide Your Smiling Faces is one of those thrilling moments in cinema that confirms pictures can indeed be bigger than words.
Note: I will host the director and legendary film critic Amy Taubin (Film Comment, Village Voice, Sight and Sound) in a discussion of this film and other cinematic releases of the year in the first installment of the Knight Foundation-sponsored series, Speaking In Cinema on Tuesday, April 29, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For information and tickets visit here (that’s a hotlink).
Hide Your Smiling Faces begins this Friday, April 18, exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, in South Florida. It runs 80 minutes and is unrated (there’s cussing and vivid scenes of rigor mortis). Tribeca Film provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s website.