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‘Hide Your Smiling Faces,’ Pre-Teen Meditation, and the Woods Porn Phenomenon

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One director delicately captures that internal struggle where it springs up for every kid: the backyard.

Writer-director Daniel Patrick Carbone's Hide Your Smiling Faces, opening today in theaters and VOD, is a long exposure photograph of boyhood. It hovers, patiently, in the inner-circles of young men, waiting for its characters to shift their eyes, taste something foul, rage out, or cry for help under the guise of a shy, “Hey.” Boys don't talk despite doing a tremendous amount of thinking. But something will inevitably whip them into adulthood without warning. Rarely do they have anyone to tell. Because guys don't share feelings. They're guys. They're strong. They're cool. Feelings are lame. So young men dwell on their own problems and how they conquer or succumb to these obstacles shapes who they become. Carbone delicately captures that internal struggle where it springs up for every kid: the backyard.

When I was 10 years-old, my fellow neighborhood hooligans and I spent a summer afternoon walking the forest behind my house. The aimless hikes were rituals; each day we'd wander through towering trees, alongside the highway, across barely-trickling streams, and down roads of conversation we'd never dare speak in front of our parents. We journeyed wherever we could to soak it all in.

On this particular day, “it” was a Barely Legal porn mag buried like hidden treasure under a pile of brush. For these boys, it was like dusting off the Rosetta Stone. Was it chucked from a car speeding down the turnpike? Did we uncover a neighbor's nightly activity? Did these pages of naked women blossom naturally from the Earth? Levels of naïveté were immediately established when one boy picked up the magazine, gazed upon its provocative poses, and entered Bonerville for the first time. By that point, I had never been exposed to something so smutty — I'm not sure I have since. As my friends ripped out pages, stuffing them down their pants for simultaneous storage and sick pleasure, I found myself cowering at its mysterious nature. I didn't how a magazine like that could exist, I didn't understand the sexual rage it provoked out of my simple companions, and I feared what might happen if (when?) our parents learned of our encounter with the magazine. Turns out, if a 10-year-old stashes T&A glossies down his sweatpants, the person who does the wash will find them.

Two decades later, I've learned that stumbling upon porn in the woods was a collective experience (possibly diminished by the advent of the Internet, you'll have to ask a current 10-year-old for an update). “Woods Porn” was a thing, even earning an Urban Dictionary entry expounding on the theoretical origins of this consistent rite of passage. If only I'd known that then, been able to communicate my trauma, describe the strange, accompanying joy, expel the endless questions flooding my brain to someone who knew what it felt like. I wouldn't be the same person I am today, but 10-year-old me would feel such relief.

The boys of Hide Your Smiling Faces face a tougher predicament. Instead of finding a ragged copy of Barely Legal in the nearby woods, they spot the body of their friend, lying cold and dead after falling from a bridge. An accident was bound to rattle these youngsters; Earlier in the movie, we see brothers Eric and Tommy messing around with their soon-to-be-deceased friend Ian, who shows them a handgun his dad keeps locked away. It's a deadly weapon and a door to the imagination. It can kill. The boys tempt it. Just like the woods, the world.

There's no easy way to spring back from the death of a friend — especially when you're coming of age. Logic would suggest therapy, but Tommy and Eric's parents are busy dealing with grief themselves. They allow their boys to continue drifting through the verdant scenery of backwoods New Jersey, wading through ponds, touching rainfall, taking deep breaths of crisp air, and trying to figure out what the hell it means to die. The ripple effect of Ian's death touches everything in their lives. One of Eric's buddies, struck by nihilism, rings him one evening to confess that he's considering suicide and wouldn't mind company. Witnessing death is Pandora's Box. It's everywhere.

Many filmmakers strive for a meditative quality, but Carbone earns it with Ian's haunting presence. When young Tommy stands silent in the doorway of a dilapidated building for a smoldering minute, or when Eric explodes with anger in what's supposed to be a friendly wrestling match, our own contemplation fills in the blanks. Robert Donne's ambient score hypnotizes, carrying the audience backwards through time. We return to the defining moments of our youth and wonder where we went from there.

There's little to say about Hide Your Smiling Faces and so much to feel. I couldn't quote what my friends were exclaiming in the ecstasy of finding woods porn, but all the senses and emotions are neatly organized in my memory. Carbone's film has the same effect. Without relying on dialogue or heavy-handed plotting, Hide Your Smiling Faces tracks individual evolution through synesthesia, where colors bleed into smells bleed into textures bleed into philosophical abstraction. It's about soaking it all in, what we learn by walking through the woods on a summer afternoon.

Image via Tribeca Film Festival