The following review was written by Matthew Reilly, a Chicago high school student, as part of Columbia College Chicago's Columbia Links journalism program for high school students. RogerEbert.com has partnered with the Chicago Urban League and Columbia Links to mentor these students and to give them a platform for their writing. Read more about the program here.
Directed by Marquis Daisy
Smile is a word to describe a facial expression associated with happiness, joy and delight, but it appears only in a brief moment. However convincing a smile can be, it cannot describe anything outside that moment. It covers up our problems, our sadness for a few seconds, minutes or hours, but eventually we'll have to relax our faces and resume our woes. The documentary "Smile" follows the Newton family as they openly tell their abundant stories of ups and downs and ins and outs, mostly from their home residence in one of the most dangerous Chicago neighborhoods, where they have fought nail and tooth to leave for the safety and security of their family's future.
The film weaves together the Newton family’s collective perspectives about the situations they've faced. These stories reveal the true gravity of living in a bad neighborhood, and the long term direct and indirect results of crime. Through the Newtons’ testimonies we hear about the bad influences that children who grow up in dangerous situations can face—drug dealers, gangs, shootings. We also see how the lack of foundations like education and after-school activities can bring it all down. Three Newtons—Arnez, Laramie, and the late Lil Jean—are the most provocative members of the film. Lil Jean was a loving, in-and-out-of-jail brother to Laramie and Arnez, who chose to leave his life to avoid living the rest of it behind bars. Arnez, who lost a brother and a friend, and Laramie, who lost a mentor, a confidant, and a role model, both fight their hearts and minds to pull their family through the rubble; to avoid their neighborhoods influence on the young minds of their children's and Lil Jean's sons.A moment in the film I really liked was when Laramie is talking to the interviewer about how Arnez refuses to go to Lil Jean's grave and Arnez and Laramie get into a fight, on camera, over the issue. They didn't fight like reality TV stars, but they fought like a real family would. This scene alone made the film connect to me at least on a whole different level.
Despite the film’s message being told expertly and provocatively with a strong sense of realism and relatability with the audience, there are some flaws that can't go unnoticed. The narrator, who does a good job of setting the tone, is heard very little in the film. The film’s running time (62 minutes) is short, so the lines of the narrator could have been said by the Newton family. For example, if the narrator is describing a neighborhood, any of the Newtons could have given their impressions instead. Most of the other times the narrator speaks could have been left out and told by the Newtons to make the film flow smoother. Several of the transition scenes used when the narrator or a Newton is talking are repeated constantly throughout the film. This comes off as not a lack of effort, but a lack of information. To truly get a point across to your audience, you need to embody your statement with multiple images that can support the speaker in depicting what the audience needs to imagine. Reusing scenes limits how well the story can be told.
Overall, the film was good and almost made me cry. Though some viewers—like myself—have never experienced the feelings of grief, remorse or sorrow over a death, "Smile" has made it apparent through the story of Lil Jean that when those days come, it won't be easy. Despite this grim reminder of the inevitable, the film shows us family is required to get through such times.