By Gary M. Kramer.
A stunning coming-of-age drama about rural childhood and the fragile line between life and death, Hide Your Smiling Faces was one of the best narrative features at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone’s small, absorbing film concerns two brother, the older Eric (Nathan Varnson) and the younger Tommy (Ryan Jones), who play out in the woods that surround their home. They explore the various abandoned houses and bridges in the area, encountering dead animals, and in Eric’s case, the body of a dead boy, Ian, who was a friend of Tommy’s. They also wrestle with other local youths in the nearby fields, while Eric wrestles with the knowledge that his friend Tristan is contemplating suicide.
Carbone lets his film unfold at an unhurried pace, allowing the characters to bask in their emotions and in the natural environment. When a character stands with his arms out in the rain, the feeling of water hitting him is palpable. Likewise, scenes of animals—such as a snake devouring its prey—are freighted with meaning.
The director and his two leads met with Film International at the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss Hide Your Smiling Faces. In the interview, the writer/director admitted that he was “really confused” as a teen, and his development of the story was his way of “trying to figure [adolescence] out. You grow up in an area like that [central New Jersey/the Poconos] where you don’t get [exposure] to culture—it’s just farmland and woods—and your parents become your friends, and that’s your whole [sphere of] influence.”
He continued, “I don’t think I ever went through anything as dark as…” he pauses, and recants, “Well, that’s not true—the death of my grandparents, the death of my dog. In college I had a roommate that either was an accident or committed suicide. People still don’t really know, so that’s where that [plot point] came from… There’s a lot of trauma. I wanted to diffuse all that into one thing. There are so many films about being young that become this big overarching thing you can’t grab onto. I wanted this film to be about this specific feeling.”
The themes of innocence—and its corruption—are imbued with meaning in the film’s many symbols. Carbone explained he wanted to explore, “The atmosphere of being out in the forest and that washing over you,” adding, “I knew I wanted nature, the environment, and wildlife to be as much of a character as these two guys.”
The relationship between the brothers forms the backbone of the film, and Tommy often looks to—if not always up to—Eric. Carbone explained that he had a not-dissimilar experience with his sibling growing up. “I definitely had a kind of back and forth relationship with my brother, which is probably something anyone with an older or younger brother can relate to. I think it depends on your distance age-wise; we were five and a half years apart. I think that’s right at that age where you don’t really hang out. You’re looking up to them, but also learning from them. I have a lot of experiences where I got to learn from the mistakes of my brother so I might have had it a tad bit easier in some cases. I guess when you’re that young, you need a figure to look up to and learn from. I think it wasn’t necessarily an all-positive thing. Sometimes, I was looking and realizing I shouldn’t do that, or make those mistakes. That was part of the film.”
For the young actors, they bonded like brothers from the beginning. Each used their own experiences to inform their roles. Varnson is the third of six kids, while Jones has four younger siblings.
“We used a lot of Nate’s personal relationship with his siblings, when we talked about his scenes, and that was a big help for him, I think,” Carbone said, referring to a scene in which Eric and Tommy destroy the house of a neighbor they suspect tied their dog to a cinderblock in the middle of the street. [Fun Fact: The house in question belongs to Carbone’s parents. Not a fun fact: the filmmaker’s dog did suffer such a fate in real life.]
“Dan and I had a couple of conversations before the scene, walking up to the house. They were good talks that made me get more and more mad.” He revealed that he has a special needs sister, whom he is very close to and defensive of. When Dan said, “What if somebody made fun of her?” he used that to create Eric’s mindset. “I became Eric, so I felt his rage,” he said.
Still, as angry as Eric gets in the film—breaking into someone’s home to destroy it, or even holding a gun to another kid’s head—he demurs about being so aggressive in real life. “I can get very mad, but I don’t know if I could ever get to that peak.” Regarding the film’s gunplay, he admitted, “It wasn’t very fun. I’m not a very violent person, so I can’t imagine myself doing that in real life. But then it’s a childhood fantasy to hold a gun, so that was fun. But I didn’t like it when they put a gun to my head. “
The young actor, who gives an incredibly accomplished performance, has a theory about why Eric is so angry. “I think it’s Eric’s denial of having to grow up. I don’t know if he doesn’t want to or if he is scared of it. His parents are not the best. His neighbor is a terrible person. All the adults around him are not good people. He’s worried about what he’s going to be like.” The film also suggests that the knowledge of his friend’s possible suicide attempt weighs on him. Such is the complexity of Hide Your Smiling Faces.
In contrast, Jones has the less serious part, and he seemed to enjoy playing on screen. The young actor admitted that while Tommy is outdoorsy, he is outdoorsy “in a different way,” preferring to play sports rather than with dead animals. Jones exhibited a mischievous streak on set, rubbing the prop of a dead cat against his face, “It was weird—it looked so real!” he recalled with enthusiasm.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.