Nature and death are, oftentimes in cinema, omnipresent, larger-than-life specters; as ubiquitous guiding forces, one could argue that these themes play roles almost as integral as a narrative’s principal characters. Hide Your Smiling Faces, written and directed by feature-film newcomer Daniel Patrick Carbone, and which made its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, is one such addition to this thematic club, broaching the interplay of the subjects through the delicate lens of childhood.

The heartfelt coming-of-age tale explores the lives of two young brothers – 14-year-old Eric and 9-year-old Tommy — as they romp around the rural American countryside. Leading a carefree existence and goofing around with childlike abandon, they fill the days with wrestling contests in grassy fields, journeys through lush forest land, raids of unoccupied, dilapidated houses, and swims in the local watering hole — that is, until a friend’s mysterious death pops the bubble of unbridled, summertime fun and forces the siblings to come to grips with their own imminent mortality. Whereas Eric reacts with angst toward his parents and senseless, over-the-top aggression, Tommy maintains a mostly silent disposition, internalizing his grief and not always comprehending Eric’s behavior (though always content to tag along when mischief is at hand). And once the story begins to pick up, they don’t have to hide their smiles — they’re just downright nonexistent.

To label the performances of the lead actors — Nathan Varnson as the impulsive, at-times-aggressive older brother and Ryan Jones as his more cautious and caring younger kin — as brilliant would certainly not be an exaggeration; these first-timers bring a dramatic seriousness and innate talent to the screen comparable to that of more practiced thespians, and is sure to catapult their fledgling careers. They demonstrate a wide range that spans physical silliness and horseplay to deep and introverted ponderings of life’s circumstances, painting a tableau of boyhood that is refreshing in its overall honesty and sincerity. That Carbone gave Varnson and Jones leeway for experimentation with his script through improvisation (he admits to having difficulty writing dialogue for kids) helped infuse an added degree of authenticity into the production.

The brilliantly paced, tension-packed screenplay was a very personal endeavor for the writer-director, using experiences gleaned from his life to pen a semi-autobiographical account of the complications of adolescence. “I wanted a film about being young the way I remember it,” he explained in an interview with the Tribeca Film Festival. “Certain aspects of the film are based on my own childhood, including my relationship with my brother, my relationship with the landscape, and some difficult moments that I struggled to understand at various times in my life.” Indeed, the boys’ house is the childhood home of Carbone’s friend, and some of the locales frequented by the characters in the movie are the filmmaker’s former hang-out spots. That death saturates the script — Tommy and Eric must continually confront this inescapable, inevitable reality of life, not just through the passing of their peer, but through the corpses of wildlife scattered across the landscape as well as matter-of-fact suicidal utterings — even stems from the fatalities of significant figures in Carbone’s youth.

Nick Bentgen’s cinematography — beautiful exterior photography, whether it be of dense, colorful woodland or a graffitied, open-air labyrinth underneath out-of-service train tracks, capturing rich visual texture — combined with smart, thoughtful direction on the part of Carbone make for a solid duo of cameramen that immerse viewers in the characters’ natural surroundings and bring an immediacy to their emotions. A virtually nonexistent score — indeed, only a few minutes of the film witness the spacy, dreamlike background music — only serves to enhance this experience, creating an overall intimate portrayal of the strong bond of brotherhood and the fleeting innocence of childhood.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

“Hide Your Smiling Faces” opened at Tribeca on April 21. The film will be screening on Thursday, April 25 and Saturday, April 27 at the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea Theatre (located at 260 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues). For ticket and time schedule information, please visit

Featured image: Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnson star as Tommy and Eric in director Daniel Patrick Carbone’s film “Hide Your Smiling Faces.” Photo Credit: Nick Bentgen.

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