Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 02 March 2009
Source Firstlook Studios DVD
Screening Log Mysterious Skin
A stoner film usually amounts to little more than an 80-minute in-joke. The best ones can boast sublimely ridiculous dialogue or preposterous plots, but they usually aim for nothing higher than to entertain blitzed college students. Yet even an unambitious movie done extremely well can still be a gem. The little-seen Smiley Face, an unusual entry into the stoner genre, is a cloudy gem, but a gem nonetheless.
The plot of Smiley Face is the same as almost every stoner film: the protagonist gets really high, then goes on a bumbling quest to find or do something, evading the up-tight and authoritative along the way. Smiley Face differs from – and one-ups – the pack by setting the hero on her quest alone, and by throwing almost no other obstacles in front of her besides her woefully and wonderfully affected mental state. Unlike other beloved stoner movies (The Cheech and Chong films, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), Smiley Face isn’t about what people do while they’re stoned, it’s about being stoned.
In making Smiley Face, the writer (first-time screenwriter Dylan Haggerty) and director (Gregg Araki) made two very important decisions that lead to its success: casting the astonishingly committed Anna Faris as Jane, and keeping almost the entire running time strictly limited to Jane’s addled point of view. The film perfectly captures the atmosphere and emotion of being overwhelmingly stoned: in idle moments, it’s a pleasant ride down a brilliant, meandering mental river, but when even the barest of demands are made, it becomes a nightmarishly helpless drift through cognitive incapacitation. The director uses simple, cheap, but effective techniques to draw us into Jane’s blazed state. A dissonant slam on the soundtrack accompanies her realization of important or dire details. The shots linger on Faris’ endlessly elastic face as it contorts in an effort to process what’s going on, stretching even the simplest actions over long seconds of slow incomprehension. Shiny, colorful distractions fill the frame for many pretty moments as both Jane and the viewer get a little lost. The strict point of view perfectly recreates the relentlessness of Jane’s high, so much so that the viewer may have to shake the cobwebs out of the brain before wandering off in search of some cookies or something. Oh, man. Cookies would be so awesome right now. It also limits the slightly cruel, mocking tone nearly unavoidable when trying to poke fun at the situation of the hapless. In the few brief moments when the film does leave Jane’s point of view, it harshens the mellow, feels a bit too edgy, like we’ve turned against a hero we’ve been rooting for. But these moments are sparse and brief.
Another place where the film makes a small mis-step when it introduces an actual crime (well, you know, besides all the possession and intent to distribute). Through a series of relatively unlikely coincidences, Jane finds herself in possession of a very valuable object, and her harmless (if perilous) adventures through blazing afternoon Los Angeles becomes more of a high-stakes crime caper. Threatening Jane with actual consequences shifts the tone a bit too far. She was paranoid enough – and the film was hilarious enough – about backing a car out of a parking space, sitting in a waiting room, or talking to her roommate.
But overall, the film is an achievement, totally immersing the viewer in a very distinctive mental state, and it accomplishes this without ever failing to be funny. Huge credit goes to Faris, whose hilarious portrait of stonerism never flags or steps outside the frame to mock herself or wink knowingly at the viewer. Her commitment to her character, and the film’s commitment to the simple, yet overwhelming, experience of being absurdly high make it something of an ultimate stoner move—not one where you have to be high to watch it, but one that actually makes you feel high as you watch it.