2013 is shaping up to be the year of Kids with Guns (cue that Gorillaz song). From Mia Wasikowska toting a rifle in Stoker to those Disney darlings forcing James Franco to fellate a pistol in Spring Breakers, youth gun violence is percolating throughout pop culture. But Hide Your Smiling Faces isn’t a hedonistic look at violence; it’s a quiet contemplation of death through the eyes of children (with guns).
When a young boy is found dead (presumably an accident), his friends in a rural American town suddenly face their own mortality. 9-year-old Tommy (Ryan Jones), who was closest to the boy, finds the inexplicability of death most befuddling and worrisome. His older brother Eric (Nathan Varnson) is initially disturbed (he’s the one who finds the body at the bottom of a bridge) before internalizing his confusion over his feelings about death into a deep rage. But it’s Eric’s best friend (Thomas Cruz) who takes the boy’s death the hardest, sparking intense suicidal thoughts.
The boys begin to take out their confused feelings on each other. That “boys will be boys” mantra ascends to new levels when their playful fight club turns frighteningly violent. And the rage bubbling inside of Eric seems to constantly need release. He and Tommy begin to unleash their issues on the dead boy’s father (Colm O’Leary), whom we only get small glimpses of. He seems prone to violence himself—screaming at his son, threatening the boys and their dog—that it makes one wonder if he was responsible for the boy’s death.
In the beginning, there is an amusing innocence and naïveté to these boys—Tommy practices kissing with one of his friends, using a technique that Pushing Daisies’ Ned would be proud of. But, as death haunts these boys, a darkness feels like it is lurking underneath. When Tommy steals the father’s gun from his shed, it seems inevitable that it is going to go off (gun on the mantelpiece in act one and all that). How far will the violence escalate?
However, this “atmospheric” film doesn’t follow conventional plot structure (so maybe things that are seemingly being set up won’t come to pass—wouldn’t that be more realistic anyway?). Writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone structured his film “like that of a dream—fragmented but always fluid.” While drawing from his own childhood and experiences growing up, he tries to tap into the universality of childhood. In this, he certainly succeeds, capturing not only his own his own generation’s concept of growing up but also appealing to the current generation coming of age.
In an effort to capture the children’s perspective, adults are almost nonexistent in the film. Aside from the aforementioned father’s brief scenes there are only Tommy and Eric’s parents. Though their appearances seem to be used just to show how adolescents clash with their parents—not speaking at the dinner table, not helping out mom with the groceries. So many coming-of-age stories almost always involve adults, so it is refreshing to see a film so fully focused on the adolescents.
Also almost nonexistent are female characters. With the film solely focused on male adolescents, the only resulting woman is their mother, who merely appears to harp on the boys’ wrongs. Yet the lack of girls doesn’t feel inherently wrong. Boys that young rarely have many girl friends, especially not close friends (unless it’s a girl with a gay best friend, but that’s a different TFF film). Maybe an up-and-coming female director can do the girl-centric counterpart to this film?
Hide Your Smiling Faces is a dreamy film about childhood. Carbone incorporates plenty of imagery throughout the film (so many dead animals—and even a few live ones) that could lend itself to various interpretations, and the fragmentation of the scenes allows you do a lot of the deducting. But whether or not he has hidden any social commentary within his film, Carbone has succeeded in creating a poignant contemplation of growing up.