Nathan Varnson (foreground) and Ryan Jones in Daniel Patrick Carbone’s “Hide Your Smiling Faces.” | TRIBECA FILMS
Writer/ director Daniel Patrick Carbone makes an auspicious, even astonishing feature debut with “Hide Your Smiling Faces,” an atmospheric drama about two young brothers growing up in the woodlands of New Jersey. Eric (Nathan Varnson) is the older brother of Tommy (Ryan Jones), and they share a close bond. They play, they fight, and they hang out with their friends. The brothers are restless and sometimes reckless, and the drama stems from unexpected moments, big and small, that pop up in their quotidian lives.
Carbone’s thoughtful and leisurely-paced film keenly observes Eric and Tommy and sometimes their friends as they wander through the forest, take a dip in the lake, bike through the neighborhood, wrestle in the fields, or sit under shelter while it rains. The kids’ activities are unsupervised, and much of the action consists of these boys being boys. Parents are not unseen, but their presence is mostly off-screen.
The kids grapple with the dares and challenges and rituals of being adolescents. When Tommy’s friend Ian (Ivan Tomic) brings out his father’s (Colm O’Leary) gun, the weapon doesn’t discharge but Ian’s father scolds his son, Tommy, and another boy, Blake (Andrew Chamberlain). A few scenes later, when Eric is exploring an old railroad bridge with his buddy Tristan (Thomas Cruz), he sees Ian’s dead body on the ground far below.
Daniel Patrick Carbone charts two young brothers’ journey through difficult rites of passage
Ian’s death provides the film with its dramatic fulcrum. While the question is raised if Ian slipped or jumped, the point of “Hide Your Smiling Faces” is not how the boy died, but how his death affects the other characters. The film’s title comes from the brothers’ difficulty conveying their feelings as they mourn Ian’s untimely passing.
Death is no laughing matter here, and little in the film is amusing. Carbone fills his drama with animal corpses, from the opening shot of a snake devouring its prey to a dead cat Eric leaves on the doorstep of Ian’s father’s as a warning not to mess with their pet dog, Daisy.
Death is also on the minds of the characters. Tristan talks several times with Eric about the idea of dying versus being killed and he even threatens Eric with an air rifle. Tristan, it is revealed, is contemplating suicide, and this fact troubles Eric, who bottles up his emotions. He later explodes in rage when Tristan provokes him. Eric is overburdened by processing the discovery of Ian’s body while trying to prevent Tristan’s suicide.
Perhaps this is what prompts Eric to tease Tommy — throwing his brother, who does not know how to swim, in the lake and scaring him by nearly pushing him off the railroad bridge where Ian died. Eric needs an outlet for his anger. He finds one when Ian’s father ties Daisy to a cement block in the street after warning them to keep the animal off his property. In his fury, Eric throws the cement block through Ian’s father’s living room window and proceeds to destroy the living room. Tommy, meanwhile, quietly visits Ian’s room, but he also stops to steal the gun owned by Ian’s father.
Tommy’s behavior provides an interesting contrast to his brother’s. While Eric quietly seethes, Tommy responds to life and death like he would antiseptic sprayed on a wound — it can sting, but only for a minute. Watching his brother misbehave, Tommy eyes Eric warily. He is reluctant to join him on an adventure one day, perhaps because he is afraid of becoming more like him. Eric struggles with Tristan’s talk of death, while Tommy has a tender scene where he and his friend Blake practice kissing each other with a piece of plastic between their mouths. It is not sexual, just another rite of passage for these young boys.
“Hide Your Smiling Faces” is all about such passages. The film’s themes of growing up and losing one’s innocence resonate because Carbone makes the dramatic moments so engrossing. In the end, both Eric and Tommy have epiphanies big and small that help them understand the isolated and sometimes cruel world they inhabit.
Watching these boys come of age is an extraordinary experience. Carbone not only coaxes naturalistic performances from the two young actors, but he films them in ways that comment on their bond — framing them on a bicycle, at the dinner table, in the water, or on the railroad bridge. The cinematography, by Nick Bentgen, deserves an award.
Ultimately, it is to Carbone’s credit that his remarkable film about death is so life-affirming.
HIDE YOUR SMILING FACES | Directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone | Tribeca Films | Opens Mar. 28 | Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St. | cinemavillage.com