Filmed in the woods around New Jersey, Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces is a mesmerising and atmospheric evocation of childhood.
Nature Boy by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Loosely based on the director’s own experience of the death of a roommate at university, its cause also shrouded in mystery – uncertain between accident or suicide – Hide Your Smiling Faces is also very much a portrait of childhood, as nine-year-old Tommy and 14-year-old Eric while away their hours in the woods behind their house. It opens with an arresting image of a snake devouring a fish – a warning perhaps of the thin line between life and death that surrounds them in the country, but not so much a metaphor as a childish fascination with looking. They’re old enough to explore on their own, to sit out the rain by the lake and to cycle aimlessly through the woods, but still young enough to be wide-eyed with wonder and to simply enjoy each other’s company. Until, that is, Eric discovers Tommy’s friend Ian dead under a bridge, and Death makes an uninvited appearance.
Brothers Tommy (Ryan Jones) and Eric (Nathan Varnson) spend almost all their spare time together, swimming in the lake ,cycling in the forest and testing each other’s strength. But Eric also has his own friends, who he wrestles and hangs around in abandoned houses with, while Ryan makes up songs and play-fights with his. His friend Ian shows them the gun his dad keeps in the shed, but threatened by his father, he runs off into the woods. And a few days later, Eric finds him dead beneath a disused railway bridge. As the boy’s death sends ripples round the small community, the two brothers struggle to understand their emotions, hitting out at the world around them, and coming to slow and childish terms with death.
With its lilac twilit lakes and its shallow focus close-ups, Hide Your Smiling Faces is a very handsome film, thanks to Nick Bentgen’s striking cinematography, and more than likely, Carbone’s own experience as DOP. But with its elliptical structure, it’s a montage of memories rather than a story – the plot turns that link the scenes (such as the father’s telling-off and the son’s death, or Eric’s sudden anger with his friend) either too oblique or missing. But as a mood piece, Hide Your Smiling Faces is a stunning piece of filmmaking – neatly capturing the sweet boredom of youth, as Tommy scrabbles round in the dirt, cleaning his soot-covered legs with spit and a piece of grass.
While Eric – half-boy, half-man –descends into the dark nihilism and angry violence of adolescence, taking out his growing-up frustrations on his neighbour with a dead cat on his doorstep and a brick through the window, Tommy is still on the tender side of childhood, fearful of swimming, affectionate towards his brother and parents and brother and filled with questions about death – “Was he happy? Was it an accident? Did it hurt?” And Hide Your Smiling Faces is just as much about brotherhood as the idle curiosity of youth, as the boys, despite everything going on around them with community grief, death, violence and guns, seek each other out – their relationship teetering between roughhousing and tenderness, as Eric teaches Tommy to swim by throwing him in the lake, or as they spend the weekend together on a disused railway bridge.
Like a minimalist and intimate Stand By Me for the 21st century, Daniel Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces is an atmospheric coming-of-age tale of boys coming to terms with death in the great American wilds. Constructed out of a series of delicate moments, such as Eric’s confrontation with a brown bear or the brothers’ sudden encounter with a rotting pile of dead pets, it’s a nostalgic, and at times menacing, tapestry of memories – carefully remembered and lovingly recreated. And even if it doesn’t quite have the emotional energy to soar high, Hide Your Smiling Faces is nevertheless an achingly beautiful flight over the forgotten currents of youth.
Hide Your Smiling Faces is released on 1st August 2014 in the UK