Nathan Varnson and Ryan Jones are brothers in this indie coming of age story.
Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
Hide Your Smiling Faces opens on a close-up of a snake slowly devouring a fish.
The process looks like it will take awhile. The camera, in no hurry to leave the scene, reveals the surrounding environment: babbling creek, rustling forest. The shot — obviously skewed toward metaphor — suggests an eternal life-and-death episode of primordial timelessness, but it smolders with a fresh and transfixing friction. What I liked most about this shot was how long it lingered, with nothing yet to suggest its ultimate meaning.
Patient observation for observation’s sake has become a rare thing in American movies. You watch something like The Hunger Games, with its frenzy of unmotivated editing, and you have to wonder if there is a clause in the shooter’s contract insuring that his or her every angle will make the final cut. But Hide Your Smiling Faces, a whispery, disquieting independent film, is so far removed from studio formulas it seems to have fluttered down from another planet, alighting in an Eden-like glade fraught with impending doom. (The film opens Friday, April 4th, at Northwest Film Forum.)
Following that opening shot, we’re introduced to two boys: One is a teenager (Ryan Jones) and the other a few years younger (Nathan Varnson). They’re affectionate and playful, framed within the arch of a tunnel and backlit by a radiant sun. Again the camera sits still, allowing us to gather clues to this relationship, and then it intercuts between the two, their glances at each other fueling a mood of homoeroticism.
The scene is off-kilter enough to make us feel uneasy. We soon learn, however, that the boys are brothers and they live in a rural setting of farmhouses and grazing land, crisscrossed by imposing stone bridges and the placid waters of streams, lakes and a particularly picturesque river. It is summer, and the scenes that follow express the random, listless rhythms of the season. The two brothers are joined by a loose group of friends. They hang out, wrestle, ride bikes and, in the only clue to the movie’s era, listen to CDs on a Discman. The boys percolate with the simmering hormones and confused yearnings of adolescence, and there remains a few sidelong intimations of unspoken sexual attraction among some of them.
Director Daniel Patrick Carbone works with cinematographer Nick Bentgen to depict these aimless hours with an astonishing, tactile clarity. The film is ravishing to look at, the cameraman’s patient lens offering a lesson in thoughtful contemplation. The summer days inch along with nothing much happening until, finally, something does. A friend dies. It is unclear at first which friend this was, since he was barely introduced to us. And even though the unexplained circumstances of his death don’t appear to interest the police or the friend’s single father, the mystery provokes a leap into unknown territory for the brothers and another troubled pal. They talk of death, suicide and fate; they flirt with guns; they threaten one another; and they act with alarming destructiveness.
What neither they nor the filmmakers do is deliver much in the way of insight or plot, a strategy which represents a firm artistic stance by the director to steer clear of conventional expectations, but which also keeps us at a frustrating distance from the characters. Something unnamable lurks outside our grasp — some may call it “pretension” — and this quality, while visually impressive, is emotionally vague.
But Carbone, who also wrote and edited, is clearly unconcerned by the possibility of mistaking his precise frames and casual dialogue scenes for longueurs. Boredom is integral to childhood summers anyway. Here the empty spaces of long days are filled with tentative ruminations on mortality, which threaten to veer into tragic action, especially when accentuated by composer Robert Donne’s haunting score. But what director Carbone, in this extremely confident debut, chooses to leave us with are not tidy answers. Instead, we are asked to contemplate a once pastoral atmosphere now permanently unsettled.