Smiley Face came out when I was 17. After reading about it online, my best friend and I tracked down the DVD at our local video store, which was called Movie Gallery but used to be called Video Galaxy. Three years later, it wouldn’t be called anything.
After securing the rental, we probably took a detour on the way back to her parents’ house, probably passed a weed-stuffed glass pipe back and forth as we carefully navigated the tree-lined backroads of our New England neighborhood. When we got there, we probably raided the kitchen for frozen french fries or leftover buffalo chicken pizza. We probably smoked another bowl in the garage — quietly, so we wouldn’t disturb her mom and dad. We probably put the disc into the DVD player downstairs because that was the room with the comfiest couch. I can’t remember all the specifics, but it probably happened something like that. What I do know for sure is that for the next 88 minutes, we laughed until our stomachs were sore and our cheekbones ached.
The mainstream reaction to Smiley Face was more tepid. After debuting to mostly positive reviews at Sundance, Smiley Face was released on a single American movie screen in the fall of 2007, racking up a domestic box office total of just $9,397. The movie was directed by New Queer Cinema icon Gregg Araki, who wanted to follow-up his 2004 film Mysterious Skin — a tender, spellbinding drama about the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse on two small-town teenagers — with something a little less intense. He fell in love with the Smiley Face script, which was written by Dylan Haggerty and follows an underemployed actor named Jane F. (Anna Faris) who gets stoned and eats a whole batch of cupcakes that her judgmental roommate (Danny Masterson) was saving for a sci-fi convention. When she realizes that they were actually pot cupcakes, she skyrockets to another plane of intoxication. The rest of the film tracks Jane as she attempts to complete a comically short to-do list, which includes buying more weed to bake replacement cupcakes, meeting a casting agent (Jane Lynch) for an audition, and paying her way-overdue electric bill in person. The result is a hilarious all-in-one-day misadventure that rivals After Hours, Run Lola Run, and Uncut Gems in terms of its sheer narrative escalation.
Despite its lukewarm commercial reception, the cult of Smiley Face has grown significantly over the past decade and a half. Some of that has to do with the fact that shows like Broad City, which Smiley Face predates by seven years, have since normalized the female-led weed comedy, a sub-subgenre that likely didn’t have as much top-down support in that stretch of years between Harold and Kumar and Pineapple Express. It also has to do with the solid work from the movie’s supporting cast, which in addition to Lynch and Masterson also includes Adam Brody as a weed dealer with cringey white-boy dreads and John Krasinski as Brevin Ericson, Jane’s dweeby lovesick admirer. But Smiley Face’s MVP is irrefutably Faris, whose extraordinarily committed performance transcends stoner slapstick, turning Jane F. into one of 21st century cinema’s most lovable f*ck-ups.
As a perennially stoned teenage viewer, I responded to Smiley Face mostly for its jokes, laughing at Jane’s relatable ability to transform even the simplest task into a paranoia-inducing ordeal. Revisiting it now, I’m increasingly struck by the skillfulness of the filmmaking, by Araki’s decision to accentuate the interiority of Jane’s experience by framing Faris’ face in a series of long close-ups, by the playfulness with which he flash-cuts to a memory or daydream, and by the way he photographs Los Angeles with a sun-bleached expressionism that brings to mind Jean Baudrillard’s description of the city as a “network of endless, unreal circulation.”
I’m also surprised by how much affection I feel for Jane, a social misfit with an unassumingly sophisticated imagination who struggles between the urge to conform and a more primal desire to circumvent the messy mechanics of modern life altogether. Is Smiley Face a character portrait of a disillusioned ex-economics major who uses bong rips to dull the edges of her late-capitalist hellscape? Or is it an outrageous weed comedy, a dumb-funny farce designed for Visine-carrying 17-year-olds to watch on the couch with their friends? The magic of Smiley Face, I realize now, is that it succeeds at being both.
I recently caught up with Gregg Araki over Zoom to reflect on what he describes as “one of [his] favorite movies he’s ever made.” Read our conversation below, where we gush about Anna Faris’ legitimately award-worthy performance, discuss the 4/20-friendly culture that inspired the movie, and investigate why Smiley Face is not as much of an outlier in his subversive filmography as you might think.
What's the first thing you think about when you think about Smiley Face now?
In my kitchen, I have a picture of me and Anna Fairs, and we're laughing our heads off. I love that picture because that's literally my memory of that experience — super fun, super good vibes. It was shot in February, I think. It was starting to warm up in L.A. The whole cast was fantastic. Adam Brody was fresh off The O.C., and John Krasinski had hardly done any movies. I shot it with a lot of my usual [behind-the-scenes] people. I remember telling Anna the first time I met her — we were in a hotel room; she was on a press junket for that movie Just Friends that she did with Ryan Reynolds — and I said, “This is the kind of movie that you're going to be 80 years old and walking down the street and someone is going to be be like, ‘Oh, my God, you were in that movie!’”
What made you want to pitch the role to Anna Faris in the first place?
Jane F. is in every frame of Smiley Face. You have to want to watch everything she does. It's her face for the whole freaking movie. When we were casting, I told [producer] Alix Madigan, “I'm looking for the person you see and say ‘I wish they were in the movie more.’” That person who's maybe playing second banana or the best friend or something, and you're like, “God, I wish this whole movie was about them.” Like Anna in Lost in Translation. When she's on screen you just want to watch her. She was that in Just Friends, too. She was the person that really popped and stole the show. I was so excited when she responded to the script.
Were you very interested in weed culture at that time?
I personally am not a big stoner, but some really good friends of mine were big stoners. They used to sit around watching old movies all day with their bongs on the coffee table. When I read the script by Dylan Haggerty, I was struck by how authentic it was, how real it felt, and how much it described the way your brain works when you're stoned. It was a clever, truthful chronicle of that experience. All the scenes played really vividly in my head as I read it. I remember thinking about my stoner friends, like, They're just going to sit around and watch this movie all day long. Over and over. And here we are still talking about. On the set of the TV show I was just working on, one of the producers went, “Oh, my God, Smiley Face is one of my favorite movies.” It's always fun to run into those people.
Anna Faris’ acting is incredible from start to finish. Do you have a favorite scene that highlights her performance?
There are so many moments. When I was on set a couple of weeks ago and that producer was talking about the movie, she was like, “I love that scene where Anna is in the car trying to back out of the garage and she starts seeing all this sh*t and then rolls out of the car in slow motion.” That was all Anna. The direction was basically “You get out of the car.” And then suddenly she's rolling on the ground. It was so f*cking funny.
Smiley Face came out when I was 17 and really into getting high all the time. I remember appreciating it on that absurd laugh-out-loud level. Watching the movie as an adult, I find myself thinking more about Jane as a character, paying closer attention to her offbeat intelligence and deranged charisma. I have a lot of affection for her.
Anna was the perfect actor to play that role. The things she does in the movie — if you really, really watch it — are very subtle and not easy. Jane is not a very sympathetic protagonist; she does dumb things and it can be exasperating to watch. But Anna is so… you really empathize with her, even when she's making the worst possible choices. That's a really miraculous accomplishment. Anna should have gotten an Oscar for that, in my humble opinion. I remember when the movie came out people were like, “Oh, she's just f*cking stoned.” But they didn’t know that because everything was so carefully composed, she had to be so precise. If she was an eighth of an inch off her mark, the shot wouldn't work. She had to be completely sober and completely on it.
In your opinion, how does this movie relate to the rest of your work? There are some obvious thematic and aesthetic throughlines — text appearing on the screen, a twisted sense of humor, the highs and lows of life in Los Angeles.
I've written most of my movies. I didn't write Smiley Face, but I count it as one of my children. And stylistically, it's very much of a piece with everything else. The script itself has had an influence on my work, too. It's funny, when I did that show Now Apocalypse, it was influenced by all the things I've been working on for my whole career, and I was amazed at how much of Smiley Face was in there — a stoner protagonist, this weird surreal quality, flashbacks to random sh*t. If I hadn't made Smiley Face, the show would have been very different. People were always a little baffled about Smiley Face, like “Why is Gregg Araki going to do this stoner movie?” But it's become a very integrated part of my whole oeuvre, so to speak.
“Anna was the perfect actor to play that role. The things she does in the movie — if you really, really watch it — are very subtle and not easy.”
I feel like a lot of your films — Nowhere, Mysterious Skin, etc. — deal with outsiders searching for some sort of human connection in places where that isn’t the easiest thing to find.
My characters are always trying to find their place in the world. They always tend to be somewhat alienated and out of step with what's going on around them. Jane seemed like one of those protagonists. And she's really empathic. If you think about the central characters of my movies — [James Duval] in the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, [Avan Jogia] in Now Apocalypse — they aren't your conventional heroes. They're not particularly virtuous or larger than life. But you relate to them, and you're rooting for them, even if their lives are not super socially acceptable.
Was there ever a point during development when you wanted Smiley Face to tell a more explicitly queer story?
To me, it is kind of a queer story because of its outsiderness, and I definitely bring that [quality] to it. I think it's in the point of view. If some white straight guy had directed the movie, I think it might have been very different. But there was never the idea like “Let's make Jane a lesbian” or something. She has this kind of asexual vibe. Although when I did a polish of the script, one of the things I added was that scene where she's suddenly in a fantasy flash cut — it’s Brevin's masturbation fantasy, I think — and Jane’s naked and playing a board game or something. It's more like the role that Anna played in The House Bunny. She’s this seductress. Those elements add texture to her character.
I’ve met multiple people who cite that moment — seeing Jim from The Office masturbating in the shower — as a queer awakening of sorts.
I'm glad that's a thing. That's why it was so fun to have him play Brevin. He was this weird indie heartthrob, so it was cool that he was interested in playing such a crazy character. Even his name makes me laugh: Brevin Ericson.
I came across an early review in which the critic writes that even though Jane is the one with a debilitating weed habit, the film suggests that most of the “straight” supporting characters she meets are “in thrall to an even more powerful drug: the myth of the American dream.” Did you anticipate these deeper, more analytical readings while you were working on the movie?
This is a movie that people watch stoned. When you're in that state, your brain is always working in this strange, tangential way. That's why the script was so great, because it already had those ideas and theories baked into it. There was all this subtext. I knew the politics would get unearthed. The intent was to make a movie that you could watch over and over again — maybe to look for some sort of secret meaning or maybe just to enjoy the performances.
Do you have any other treasured memories surrounding the production?
We premiered at Sundance in the midnight section. Our first screening was in the library. It's a weird space, like an auditorium or whatever. I remember Anna's parents were sitting right behind me and they were just howling. It was a really cold night, and there were these kids who came up to me afterwards who were like, “I waited for eight hours in subzero temperatures to see this movie.”
I was also just thinking about Jane Lynch playing the casting director. That was one of the scenes that really sold me on the script. I remember thinking that was one of the funniest things I'd ever read. [The screenwriter] had acted before, and that's what made the script so real. Clearly he had been to an audition like this, trying not to act stoned. It was so truthful. Working with Jane Lynch on that scene was so fun. Everyone in the cast was so fun. Anna is one of my favorite people in the world. Smiley Face has a very special place in my heart.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.