Never, ever let them see you Smile. Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) works as a therapist in the local psychiatry ward. She’s obviously seen her share of unsettling instances on the job, and as a youngster, her own experience with familial trauma pushed her into this field. Her work consumes her, as Rose routinely puts in over 60 hours a week. Her boss, Morgan (Kal Penn) is concerned. Thankfully, her supportive(ish) fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) gets it.
What she witnesses one day shakes her to the core. In her place of work, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), a PhD student, confesses that she’s seeing something after witnessing the self-inflicted death of her professor. And this something was smiling at her. Initially chalking her descriptions as hallucinations, all that goes out the window when Rose sees Laura meet a grisly end. Worse, Rose is now seeing the same smiling “hallucinations.” But they’re not real…or are they? And if they are, how does Rose stop them from being the end of her?
Whether it was fair or not, many, including yours truly, couldn’t help and think of the terrible Truth or Dare movie after seeing all the smiles during the trailer for Smile. Sure, the trailer looked pretty good, but there’s no way the final product wouldn’t be campy, right? Any concerns I had dissipated rather quickly in the runtime. Smile is a great addition to what has already been a substantial year in quality horrors and thrillers.
What is the best way for a new filmmaker to announce their arrival? In the first few minutes, of course. Parker Finn helms (and writes), expanding on his 2020 short of Laura Hasn’t Slept. The opening scene in Smile is, what the kids say these days, a banger. There’s no shock as to how it obviously ends, but Finn does a lot in roughly 7-10 minutes with space, angles, and static shots to create heightened unease. The devilish visage of Laura at the conclusion of this moment is one I suspect will forever etch itself into my brain.
It sets the tone for the rest of the film, which sees Finn lean into jump scares without the feeling of being cheap or covering up for an inability to build suspense. It’s like he crafts the setup and instinctively knows the right time that doesn’t quite match up to our trained expectations to drop the glass, make the flash cut, etc. It’s all paired with a strong sound design. If there were but one technical piece to harp about, the upside-down establishing shots feel sort of unnecessary; while it could be said they’re there to serve as a visual for Rose’s declining sanity, Finn is able to get that across without this trick.
Finn’s script for Smile is one of a recent few in the horror genre over the last decade to use trauma and the ill-effects it often has on an individual’s mental health if left totally untreated to serve as the center point. Maybe the most commendable thing about his story is the comfort he has in rolling with the uncomfortable idea that unfortunately, every now and then, trauma simply cannot be beat. His actual ending isn’t the cleanest, but it stays true to the story and tone. For a nearly two hour movie, Smile does run longer than needed though, with the sense existing that 2-3 scenes add really good jump scares, yet don’t quite progress proceedings forward.
The length would be a bigger drawback if the film’s lead actress were not up to the task of carrying a lot and not missing a beat as her character’s personal story becomes more and more troubling. Thankfully, Finn has Bacon to lean on. It is a building performance; nothing is showy, but her impact is there in every scene and it is kind of fascinating to see her balance and do battle with the fight going on in her head versus the one outside. Of course, she isn’t the only person with speaking lines but the roles played by Usher, Kyle Gallner as a cop/Rose’s ex, and Gillian Zinser as Rose’s older sister are pretty forgettable. Smile is one of those features where side characters make as much of an imprint as the supporting ones, whether it be the already mentioned Laura, an imprisoned man desperately trying to avoid a curse (Rob Morgan) or a mumbling patient who believes everyone is going to die (Jack Sochet). Each of these three in limited screen time keep Smile’s hooks in the audience whenever it feels like they may be loosening.
Remember when the Scary Movie movies were a thing? If they still were releasing in the 2020s, they’d pull a lot from Smile. It isn’t hard to see how this was influenced by features that came before it, and how it’ll probably influence features down the line.
Photo credits go to IMDB.com, hollywoodreporter.com, and digitalspy.com.
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