An aspiring Broadway actress and her Prince Charming (Kip Pardue) await a happy-ever-after marriage, when—splat!—her fiancé is flattened on the streets of Manhattan. Jump ahead several years and Laura (Petra Wright) is floating blankly through a dreary life as a suburban housewife, at which point Laura Smiles teaches us that you can’t escape misery, least of all in Jersey. This lesson is not new to American independent cinema, whose many-faced repudiations of conservative values have become laughably rote. God bless them, these movies still fight the good fight against that most nostalgic of American Dreams: Lexus SUVs, white picket fences, and—yes—home cooking. Dreadful, ain’t it?
But just when you thought—as I did—that you had Laura Smiles all figured out, things get really interesting. As Laura reveals to her psychologist through a clichéd flashback structure, she expresses her pent-up angst in a very sordid second life. For the audience, as for Laura’s hopelessly normal husband Mark (Mark Derwin), her loopy character transformations come across as nothing less than a slap in the face: Out of nowhere, she is liable to casually bring up a character’s secret indiscretions at a dinner party, or turn to a grocery store clerk and demand, “I need to fuck you right now” with utter soberness. (By comparison, watching Kevin Spacey jack off in American Beauty‘s shower seems almost wholesome.)
These freak-outs are meant to suggest the post-traumatic stress disorder Laura ostensibly suffers from following the death of her lover, but writer-director Jason Ruscio can hardly feign psychological seriousness. In spite of his pretensions, he’s a smut director through and through—and a hack one at that. What begins as a glimpse into Laura’s casual infidelity quickly becomes a lurid ride through Basic Instinct-knock-off suburban depravity. It would be hilarious, if only it weren’t all so bonkers. What is Ruscio trying to say, exactly, when Laura devises to turn her affairs into a three-way porno tape? Are her kinks fed by housewife boredom or the void of a broken heart? Either way, Ruscio’s methods are heinous. But I would be lying if I said the film didn’t have its perverse pleasures; poor Petra Wright embodies the mommy-gone-mad caricature with an intensity that suggests she’s been possessed. If you’re the type who cranes his neck to eye a car wreck, Laura Smiles is a mess that must be seen to be believed.