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Hide Your Smiling Faces
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by Jay Seaver

"Life, death, and a long summer vacation."
4 stars

Dead things appear early on in "Hide Your Smiling Faces", as three kids poking around an abandoned building find a dead bird and do not exactly treat it with respect. It's a good starting point for writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone's first feature, a fine look at rural kids confronting mortality.

Those three kids are Eric (Nathan Varnson), his younger brother Tommy (Ryan Jones), and Tommy's best friend Ian (Ivan Tomic). It's summer vacation, they're old enough not to need a whole lot of parental supervision, although you can argue whether that's a good or bad thing when Ian shows the brothers his father's pistol. The man chases Tommy and Eric away, and a few days later, Eric and his friend Tristan (Thomas Cruz) find Ian's body.

This could be the start of a mystery story, and maybe something like that is going on behind the scenes, but Carbone keeps the focus clearly on the kids' perspective, so if there's talk of an investigation, it's not filtering down to that level. Instead, the fact of Ian's absence takes the focus rather than the circumstances, and in some ways it seems to be affecting Eric more than Tommy. Part of that may just be the fact that Eric has Tristan to play off, and a story that goes in an interesting direction there. For the most part, summer goes on, but there's a pall, and added significance to everything from learning to swim to the mean neighbor threatening their dog.

It is, in many ways, familiar material; the first scene of kids handling a gun is certainly able to set some nerves on edge even though it's the sort of sequence that has appeared in a great many movies. Carbone does a nice job with it, though. If the individual pieces are oft-used, they are used because there's something about them that work, and Carbone tends to stage them without any particular twists. There's still tension to them, in large part because the goal does not seem to be either an iconic example of these scenes or particular subversion. There's also an enjoyable, non-forced timelessness about the film, with neither the way kids speak or the rhythms of the film being self-consciously modern nor deliberate throwbacks to other times.

The mostly-young cast does well in presenting these kids. Nathan Varnson doesn't make a very strong impression initially, but as the film goes on, his frustration comes closer to the surface, and it's interesting to watch, as it's more often confused than dangerous. Ryan Jones is just as good as Tommy, seldom quite as demonstrative as Varnson's Eric but doing well to get his feelings onto his face and into the tone of his voice. They work well with each other, and also with Thomas Cruz and Ivan Tomic in somewhat smaller but interesting roles. Christina Starbuck and Chris Kies don't get a whole lot of time as Tommy's & Eric's parents, though they're fine, while Colm O'Leary makes the moments when Ian's father appears suitably memorable and threatening.

It's also a strikingly good-looking film; either Carbone and company found some fantastic locations or built the screenplay around the bridge where many scenes take place (and which overlooks many more). Its disused but covered with moss on the outside and graffiti within, making it represent both decay and rebirth, something that is reflected throughout the movie, where the run-down is often something the young characters can make use of. Carbone doesn't overplay his hand, though, either with the symbolism or the scale of the story: Hide Your Smiling Faces clocks in at a lean eighty minutes, just enough time to tell these kids' story without a framing sequence, adult subplot, or other distraction.

Certainly, it's a story that many in the audience will have seen before, but it's one of the better-looking renditions, and the separation from adult perspectives works better than it often does. Maybe it will eventually get lost in the large population of coming-of-age stories out there, or maybe it will stand out, if only for being a promising start for Carbone, Varnson, and/or Jones.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24961&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/29/14 16:18:02
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Denver Film Festival For more in the 2013 Denver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Sun Valley Film Festival For more in the 2014 Sun Valley Film Festival series, click here.

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