Director: Daniel Patrick Carbone

Death hovers all around first-time director Daniel Patrick Carbone's Hide Your Smiling Faces, a subdued and brooding coming-of-age film that strikes an impressive balance between darkness and tenderness.

The opening scene appropriately introduces what's at stake: Pre-teen Tommy (Ryan Jones) and a few of his buddies find a dead bird inside a rundown shed located within the woods that encircle their rural New Jersey homes. Rather than be repulsed by it, the kids move the bird's mouth in playful karaoke-styled singing and pretend that it's flying. To them, the concept of death isn't upsetting yet—they haven't experienced its destructive power in their own lives. In a different part of town, Tommy's older brother, Eric (Nathan Varnson), kills time with his own friends by aggressively wrestling each other in a sort of backwoods fight club. To them, pain is a rush and a rite of passage.

Hide Your Smiling Faces progresses with a worrying sense of dread. As the film grows more somber by the minute, one gets the feeling that Tommy and Eric could confront mortality firsthand at any given moment, and it's much to Carbone's credit that the film avoids any obvious narrative turns. Death starts to consume the two siblings, but not morbidly—it makes them grow up faster than they'd ever expected. For Tommy, Ian's angry father's constant threats towards the boy's dog compound with a pit of dead animals that he comes across in the forest; Eric, on the other hand, begrudgingly entertains Tristan's conversations about suicide and, since he's at that age, lashes out against his parents who, in his eyes, aren't trying to understand everything that he's going through.

With an acute sense of location conveyed by hauntingly still shots of landscape (props go to cinematographer Nick Bentgen), Carbone places viewers smack-dab into the kids' scenic yet isolated and one-dimensional world. There's seemingly little to do other than explore the woods, play-fight, and toy with birds' corpses; there's no reprieve from the unpleasantries surrounding them. Hide Your Smiling Faces isn't exactly a welcoming experience, but once you settle into its intentional bleakness, it's tough to shake off.