Indie nature-drama “Hide Your Smiling Faces” shows promise despite uneven storytelling
If only everyone could use filmmaking to reflect on their childhood. The difficult, profound, and often-tragic nature of growing up seems to forever translate into brilliant cinema. From Truffaut to Kevin Smith, successful directors have frequently begun their careers with a story of great personal importance before moving on to purely fictional material.
Daniel Patrick Carbone’s feature debut “Hide Your Smiling Faces” winds its way between what was, what could have been, and what should have been in the director’s own childhood. This is evident early on in the well-informed use of the rural, woodland setting deep in a rarely seen side of New Jersey. With rustic locations as beautiful as they are authentic (an out-of-service, graffiti-ridden railroad bridge serves as a centerpiece), Carbone is either the best location scout in the industry, or we’re seeing his hometown. The latter is of course true, and it’s not hard to imagine the cathartic experience of returning to that place to tell a story of adolescence, nature, and death.
Jolted out of summer merriment to face their inevitable mortality, teenaged Eric (Nathan Varnson) and his younger brother Tommy (Ryan Jones) grapple with the unexplained death of their nine-year-old friend, Ian. Eric, rejecting his boiling emotions while quietly blaming Ian’s father for the tragedy, takes Tommy with him into the wildlife in a series of increasingly disturbing incidents.
An eye for tone-building compositions coupled with restraint against gratuitous tangents to the overused indie territory of “look at the treetops set against the setting sun, isn’t it beautiful?” is the thread of promise that makes Carbone and director of photography Nick Bentgen definite artists to follow. The direction of the film leads to some great things (a sustained moment of tension while several boys wrestle over who gets to hold a live handgun) and some missteps (Tommy plays with a dead bird in a scene that feels too pretentious to be naturalistic). The visual approach to the film tips its hat to “The Tree of Life” while avoiding over-doing the lyrical material. Bentgen’s work here is a great study of frame within a frame, and he consistently gets the very most out of the exquisite locale shot after shot. Malick may have had a master-class cinematographer on his team for “The Tree of Life,” but for this level of independent filmmaking, the quiet, anxiety-laced story and setting could not have been captured much better visually.
It’s always great to make these connections to the influence behind a new director’s work, but unlike “The Tree of Life,” Carbone’s cast isn’t titanium-strong outside of montage. “Hide Your Smiling Faces” would cut into a hell of a short film, but at the feature length too much time is given to expose the actors’ inexperience. While the purely emotive, silent portions of these adolescent performances work well with the film’s contemplative lyricism, necessary plot-advancing scenes like an argument during a family dinner instead ring of an awareness to the movie being filmed.
After the film’s anticlimactic, arbitrary cut-to-black ending, the question left is whether or not this material really made a connection with the viewer. A more experimental cut could have thrived on mood alone, but as a traditional drama, “Hide Your Smiling Faces” feels only halfway completed after too conservatively doling out its narrative.
The wonderful accessibility of low-cost, high-end digital cameras mean that first-time directors like Daniel Patrick Carbone can actually make a film this intimately personal and well-photographed. The narrative itself doesn’t reach the level of the year’s best in adolescent-lead films, but this one feels like the learning stage of a career that will lead to a better-rounded, fantastic second film – I look forward to seeing it.
Selections from the post-screening Q&A with Daniel Patrick Carbone
Q: Could you talk a little bit about the process of casting your young actors?
A: The casting process…I sort of made this film not dissimilar to how we made our student films, it was just kind of twice as long of a process. We didn’t have any money for a casting director or anything like that, and I knew I wanted to work with more inexperienced actors for the kids because I think that there’s a certain way that young actors – and we saw a lot of them – come in with high school theater backgrounds, or acting camp backgrounds…and that stuff is all great, but for a film like this that is sort of the opposite of what works. So we saw a lot of kids who auditioned that were really big and elaborate and came in with show tunes prepared and we had a lot of fun casting but at the end of the day we basically did an open casting call on Craigslist and a few other websites that are free ways to find actors in New York and New Jersey and Connecticut. We saw probably 200 kids from 7-years-old to 18 and we weren’t casting specifically for Tommy this day, or Eric this day – we just said “let’s see all these kids and then sort of slot them into roles.” And Ryan and Nate [the actors chosen] were just immediately apparent to me – the way they could tell me a story that was deeply personal to me. Especially Ryan, who was I think 10 when he auditioned, was able to tell me a really sad story and a really funny story and something about his family. And Nate was able to tell me about his sister who has learning disabilities and I was very impressed with their ability to trust a stranger, which was me, so deeply and I knew that they would be able to bring that to the role. So it was more about finding kids who were the characters and then just letting them do their thing than finding actors and then telling them how to fit a character.
The older brother had never done a single performance before. He was a model in Atlanta and had this hilarious head shot and he sent it in and wanted to be an actor and he was willing to fly up to New York. He didn’t know how to act badly – it sounds weird, but he didn’t have any of that baggage he was just kind of like “tell me what to do, tell me what to say,” and he was just so raw and authentic that I knew he could be molded into the character.
Ryan had done some short films and some TV, like he played the ‘kid who gets kidnapped’ in “Law and Order,” and things like that. So he had some experience but he had never carried a film before and he was the most professional person on set. He consistently amazed me and just got everything on first take. He would have lines in the script and would say “No, I wouldn’t say it like that, I would actually…” and he’s the real eleven year old – I’m writing like an eleven year old, but he’s like “no this is what I would say,” and he was right. So part of the process is trusting that real kids are gonna give you a more authentic performance than an adult saying ‘this is what a kid should do.’ I learned that quickly and I think that really paid off.
Q: What are your thoughts behind not using music in the film?
A: I think that the natural world is actually very loud and when you’re outside in the woods you don’t need to do very much. We did a lot with the sound design and what you hear is partially what’s recorded on set but there’s a lot that we added – things with the pitch of the sound, and we would reverse some of the sounds. There’s no ‘right’ way for nature to sound so we had a lot of freedom to play with it and hopefully subconsciously affect the viewer.
Q: What was it that drew you to the material, was it at all biographical?
A: Yeah, it is somewhat autobiographical. It started out as just a couple of scenes that I was writing down. I had this folder of scenes that I had written based on my childhood or my brother’s childhood or the both of us and some of them were beat-for-beat exactly how it happened and some were more how I wished it had happened. The locations are all places that I hung out at, the music that they listen to in their headphones is bands I used to listen to when I was a kid. The house [Eric and Tommy’s neighbor’s home] is my parent’s house. So everything you see is based somewhat on me being a teenager.
Q: How did you come across your title?
A: I don’t get that question very often and I’m always expecting it. I had come up with that title when I was writing a really early draft and I didn’t know why I was calling it that but I liked how it sounded and I knew for some reason that it was the title of the piece. I think it has mostly to do with the fact that it’s in the second person and it’s a command. I think it speaks to being young and being told how to act and what’s right and what’s wrong and how that’s not necessarily true and it’s not always healthy to be told how to feel.
Q: What was your process like for getting a lot of the great lyrical stuff? Was that something that you pre-conceptualized or just grabbed in the spur of the moment?
A: It was in the script, but not necessarily the scenes that you see. I wrote lyrical ideas and said “this is a scene that I would love to get, but I don’t know if we’re going to actually be able to get it.” So there were placeholders for things like that and I would tell the cinematographer and the producers “be keeping an eye out for wildlife” because we were shooting on location and there were always deer and bears.
The snake [the opening shot of the film] was just happening when we were shooting other scenes so we stopped and shot that – because it was way better than what we were shooting. Stuff like the boys in the rain – the beginning and the end of the movie were not in the script, they were because it was raining so we had to go inside so it was like, “well, we’re just wasting time so put on the clothes from this scene and do whatever you want to do and we’ll film it” and it ended up being the beginning and the ending of the movie. So I think there’s a certain authenticity to just letting kids be kids.
The weather…for this film it was very good – other films would have been brought to their knees by how much it was raining. But we embraced it, it was just that kind of script where it had enough freedom so that when it happened, it was a different scene than I had in the script, but it was the same idea and sometimes it’s even better.