Solemnity and restrained naturalism seem like indie-movie affectations now, so the challenge for writer-director Daniel Patrick Carbone’s feature debut is to transcend a certain festival-ready familiarity and simply seem true to itself.
Obviously a personal project, Hide Your Smiling Faces concerns a young teenager (Nathan Varnson) and his little brother (Ryan Jones) whose lazy woodsy summer is intruded upon by a new awareness of mortality. If this sounds coyly opaque, that’s because the movie is, a little, but it’s also so as not to give away the one event most resembling a plot point.
Although generally favoring dreamlike drift over narrative determinism, Carbone does stack his deck with a few automatic doom signifiers, encouraging us to worry for the boys before we’ve really gotten to know them (or tell them apart from others). But this also makes for easy access to the essence of his undertaking, which is to reveal how even the most oblique and offhand expressions of shock, grief, and fraternal tenderness may one day, in retrospect, seem like formative moments.
Carbone minimizes dialogue and focuses instead on gestural specificity; he makes a useful inventory of boys-will-be-boys behavior — wrestling in fields, poking at scars or dead critters, shutting down on parents — and stages it in tellingly muted vignettes within the ample copses of rural New Jersey.
Environment is very much a character here, and it’s movingly apparent that Carbone, with sensitive cooperation from cinematographer Nick Bentgen, shot the film where he grew up.