“Hide Your Smiling Faces”, the stunning debut feature by Daniel Patrick Carbone, is about two boys spending the summer with their parents in the mountainous area of Sussex County, New Jersey in a time period that seems like the late 1990s (note use of portable CD player). The time and location could almost be any wooded area in the past couple of decades. The film is largely nonverbal, bereft of topical or cultural references, which is refreshing. Parents today often complain that teenagers spend too much time looking at screens but there are no televisions or Gameboys to be seen here. The two boys, 14-year-old Eric (Nathan Varnson) and his 9-year-old brother Tommy (Ryan Jones), rather, spend their days exploring nature, riding bikes, wrestling with other boys —there are no girls in the film— and talking about death. The landscapes they inhabit are half idyllic and half foreboding. They were shot gorgeously by Nick Bentgen, who also shot sequences for the recent documentary, “Teenage”.
Eric is quiet and about to explode with prepubescent energy. “I hate it here,” he complains to his parents over dinner one evening. Their parents are just as ineffectual as the ones whose words are distorted in those old Charlie Brown TV shows. Notice the t-shirts the brothers wear. Tommy’s are all from zoos and nature camps (including one in Croatia). Eric prefers MTV Headbangerz Ball. Eric bullies his brother a bit literally forcing him one point to sink or swim, a technique Tommy repeats later with his dog Daisy. But Eric loves Tommy too and isn’t afraid to show it. One night at the dinner table after a petulant Eric stalks off, their father tells Tommy, “You are not him.” A perfect summary of parental fears of bad sibling influence and their inability to control it!
A mean neighbor played by Colm O’Leary has a son Tommy’s age named Ian who steals his dad’s gun in an early scene and is then later found dead. Whether he fell or jumped from an overhead railroad bridge is unclear. At a memorial service, a dwarf tells Eric, “The Lord has a plan.” Eric asks, “He wanted this to happen?”
The two young actors are just two in a very good cast. Like Eliza Hittman’s currently playing feature “It Felt Like Love,” the story here is told in a haunting, elliptical fashion. The visual style is breathtaking. This is one of the best films about young boys I’ve seen and a gloriously sensuous and unsentimental trip through the wonders of a natural world that, for all it’s dangers, would probably do a much better job at leaving no child behind. I only wish the electronic soundtrack was on a par with everything else in the film. This type of ambient landscape score has been used in too many moody indie films and has almost become synonymous with them; in this case it detracts from the movie. Fortunately it is used sparingly.
“Hide Your Smiling Faces” premieres March 28 in NYC and elsewhere. On VOD March 25. Distributed by Tribeca Films. Adam Schartoff interviewed in Daniel Patrick Carbone in episode 201 of Filmwax Radio.