American independent cinema hasn't wanted recently for sun-baked meditations on male adolescent angst in scenic rural surroundings. Still, while Jeff Nichols' "Mud" and Jordan Vogt-Roberts' "The Kings of Summer" may boast more audience appeal, Daniel Patrick Carbone's hushed but assured debut feature outdoes them both for elegance and insight.
Carbone opens his film on the arrestingly unpleasant image of a snake digesting a half-swallowed fish, setting the tone for the disquieting, quasi-dreamlike proceedings. It may also unwittingly put audiences in mind of reptile-related climaxes in Nichols' and Vogt-Roberts' films, though it's thankfully the serpent's only appearance. Throughout the film, however, Carbone employs violent or threatening animal imagery to evoke — not always subtly — its young protagonists' growing fixation on mortality and natural decay.
Nine-year-old Tommy (Ryan Jones) and his 14-year-old brother Eric (Nathan Varnson) have evidently only recently moved to the heavily wooded New Jersey town where events unfold over the course of one hazy, largely unsupervised summer. The relative newness of the friendships they've formed may explain why both boys seem more stunned than grief-stricken when Tommy's playmate Ian (Ivan Tomic), an unruly kid with a possibly abusive father (Colm O'Leary), is found dead on the riverbank.
The circumstances of his death are never explained to the audience — nor, apparently, to the boys, whose imaginations are thus allowed to roam into unmanageably dark territory. Suicide crosses their minds, though Ian's father is perceived as culpable in any event. A mostly unspoken war of attrition ensues between the brothers and the gruffly grieving adult; left to their own devices, meanwhile, the boys engage in their own latently violent psychological games. (The recurring appearance of a gun in the narrative is an unnecessarily literal contrivance.)
Assisted by the superb performances of his two young, refreshingly unaffected leads, Carbone has a profound understanding of the close but conflicted bond that exists between brothers on either side of the puberty divide. Surly, sporty Eric plays both protector and bully to the more sensitive Tommy — sometimes simultaneously, as in a tough-love swimming lesson spiked with the threat of drowning.
Women are, as yet, hardly a presence in their world: Their concerned but frustrated mother is scarcely seen, while one of the film's eeriest, loveliest scenes (reminiscent of a Miranda July vignette) finds Tommy practicing his kissing technique with another male friend and a separating sheet of cellophane. For much of the film, direct human contact is something to be resisted, even feared; toward the end, Carbone lingers on a shot of fleeting skin-on-skin touch as if it were positively redemptive.
"Hide Your Smiling Faces" - 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:21
Opens: Friday at Facets Cinematheque