People often talk about the emotions a film made them feel, and where they felt them. A film can tug at your heart strings, tie your stomach in knots, make your brain hurt or sit in your gut. Hide Your Smiling Faces, which is beginning its limited release in London this week before expanding to other major cities, settles atop your rib cage, weighing down onto your lungs. It feels mostly like regret, but a little like resignation. And it’s magnificent.
The film is an unconventional coming of age tale that concerns itself with two brothers who live with their parents in a small provincial community that is spread throughout a seemingly endless forest. One of the boys is about to enter adolescence, the other about to leave it. The oldest is disaffected and frustrated, unarticulated rage and resentment lying constantly beneath the surface. The youngest is slowly beginning to lose his wide-eyed naïveté, emulating the eldest without understanding him.
The film feels like the kind that belongs in galleries, told as it is in disconnected vignettes. Its technique is subtle, its director’s hand hidden, so that we feel we are observing a story, rather than being told one.
Another boy from the neighbourhood falls from a viaduct to his death. An argument with a neighbour about the family dog escalates. One of the boys learns to swim. These types of loose narrative threads unfold slowly and insignificantly, adding to the characters’ lack of purpose and invoking the audience’s memories of the claustrophobia and heat of the long summers of childhood. The slow pace both numbs you and makes you restless, and so we come to understand the boys.
The film’s primary theme is the boys’ existential awakening. They are fascinated with the borders of their existence, though the youngest is just beginning to grasp where these lie, whilst the oldest is already tired of them. They observe bugs and lizards crawling across their skin. They wrestle with other neighbourhood boys in secluded fields, they inflict emotional wounds on authority figures to see how far the repercussions extend.
We feel the eldest’s weariness with the borders of his experience in the never ending forest, in the ceaseless evening light, in the constant drone of the ambient score that eventually quietens down to reveal, even worse, monotonous silence.
Some scenes play out in a single take, whilst others cut between intimate closeups and distant long shots. In this way we are invited to observe the same surfaces of places and people that the boys experience, but like them we are also kept at a distance. Our understanding of scenes is only what we bring to them, what memories and feelings we project onto these surfaces. We have to make sense of the film’s environment as much as the boys do.
Part of this discovery of their own existence is the discovery of death, the spectre of which hangs over the whole film. Again, the youngest is just becoming aware of his own mortality whilst the oldest is already well aware of his, perhaps even glad of it. Adults try to deal with the death of the boy who fell, animal carcases litter the woods, their friend tells them he wants to die.
That these ideas simmer quietly without further examination for much of the film reminds us of the boys’ innocence, of their inarticulacy and of their tenuous grasp on the border between life and death. They continue to play on the viaduct, to fight each other, to toy with stolen weapons. They know that actions have consequences, but they think that like the ripples on the surface of their lake, that they only spread outwards from the source. The film shows how much more complicated it can be than that.
A haunting and poetic work with inspired minimalist direction and some of the most naturalist children’s performances ever captured on screen, Hide Your Smiling Faces is a must see film for fans of personal film-making. It is nostalgic not for the transience of childhood, but for the seeming endlessness in which it is experienced. A sensory experience as much as an intellectual one, the film is hypnotic, thematically potent, and my favourite film of the year so far. Seek it out.