Try as we might to close the gap, the chasm between what we want from our life and what we actually get can be intimidatingly, and sometimes, distressingly, broad.
For Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman in a nuanced, wholly effecting performance) this gap is now so large that the only way erase the pain, or at least disguise it somewhat, is to soak herself in a disappointment-obliterating cocktail of drugs, prescription and otherwise, alcohol and sexual promiscuity.
Struggling also with mental depression and childhood abandonment issues, Laney is on the surface at least the perfect distillation of The American Dream.
Married to her childhood sweetheart, über-successful insurance salesman Bruce (Josh Charles) who loves her passionately but is reaching breaking point coping with her narcissistically self-destructive behaviour, and mother to two children – sensitive, socially-awkward Eli (Skylar Gaertner) and adorably precocious Janey (Shayne Coleman), Laney looks to all intents and purposes to have it all.
But everything she holds in her grip is tenuously there, her fragile hold on life one less-than-successful moment away from falling apart in her hands.
And she knows it, aware that every time she does a line of cocaine in her bathroom or has sex with her best friend’s husband Donny (Thomas Sadoski) that she is risking everything.
The tragedy is she is unable to stop what she’s doing; try as she might to be the perfect mum or the perfect citizen, she eventually crumbles in some way, losing her temper, her ability to cope or both.
She wants to be happy, as she tells her therapist Dr Page (Terry Kinney) in the month-long rehab session she books herself into after she goes on a bender in her own home one night, going so far as to masturbate with her own daughter’s teddy bear (a low point if ever there was one), but it all seems too far away, too out of reach.
She has all the building blocks for the life she desires but the spirit, the substance to actually make it real, to feel like an authentic part of her and not an aspirational extension, seems so far away that every step forward to becoming the person she wants to be, is countered by four to five alcohol, sex and drug-soaked steps backward.
If that all sounds like it would make I Smile Back, written by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman on the latter’s 2008 book of the same name, a little too bleak to be relatable, it’s not.
Silverman imbues Laney with the sort of everyperson relatability that you might not initially suspect her of having; central to the portrayal is an understanding that once you strip away the drugs, alcohol, sex and destructively belligerent attitude, Laney is just like everyone else.
Certainly her problems are more trenchant and outsized that many people may have to deal with but in essence she is simply a woman trying to make the life she covets, the one she never had growing up after her father (played with regretful awkwardness by Chris Sarandon) abandoned her family when she was 9, as real as her self-imperiling tendencies.
And that to some extent is any of us, caught somewhere between hope for what could be and a nagging sense that we’re stuck somewhere we don’t really want to be.
In Laney’s case those nagging doubts are simply far more obvious, darker and damn near inescapable.
Director Adam Salky does an impressive of not only rooting Laney’s life in this all-of-us-are-in-the-same-boat understanding but taking a person who could be a wholly unlikeable character and giving her vulnerability and charm, particularly when she is at her best.
Laney is, it is stressed, over and over, not a bad person per se, nor is she a victim – it’s made clear too that, sympathetic though she is, that Laney is the architect of both her own salvation and demise, as are we all – but a fallible person burdened with the tragic knowledge that she is failing, and failing repeatedly to fix those things that ail her.
It’s this inherent everyperson quality that gives I Smile Back such an engrossing edge.
It’s impossible to dismiss Laney, even at her wildest moments, and those moments are plenty much to her eventual chagrin and Bruce’s failing patience, as some sort of nasty aberration.
Particularly during her conversations with Dr Page, when she drops the defensive swagger that is her go-to schtick in life and admits she can see but can’t touch or keep happiness, she is raw, vulnerable and real, still hurting from emotional wounds inflicted early in her life that simply can’t or won’t be healed.
At least not quickly or wholly enough to stop her losing everything she wants, everything she tenuously holds by the frailest of margins, before it is too late.
There is a metronomic sense of gains and losses throughout I Smile Back, every moment of optimism, contentment and happiness matched almost moment-by-moment by loss of control, sadness and the despair of watching life slip through uncertain fingers.
Bravely for a film that could have easily resorted to pat answers, I Smile Back never offers them up, offering possibilities but not cast-iron solutions, much as life often does.
What we want is not always what we get and Laney Brooks is proof positive that the gap between them can be so achingly large that bridging them becomes all but impossible, leaving us standing longing a million miles from where we’d like to be and may never have the wherewithal to reach.