Forcing a smile is a horror all its own, so it makes sense that the idea of a twisted and malevolent force doing just that should head up its own horror movie. Directed by Parker Finn and based on Finn’s short film Laura Hasn’t Slept, Smile star Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, and Robin Weigert. After psychiatrist Dr. Rose Cotter (Bacon) witnesses the violent suicide of a patient, she begins to experience sinister hallucinations and comes to believe that she is being threatened by a supernatural force. With the help of her ex-boyfriend and police detective Joel (Gallner), Rose begins to investigate previous victims in the hope of saving her life.
In terms of horror premises, it’s as good as any. Good horror isn’t at all about plausibility, so Smile‘s premise sounding somewhat part-baked isn’t a big deal. What is important, however, is that Smile manages to build an appropriate sense of atmosphere – and luckily, it does just that.
With a premise centered around the idea of a life-threatening force selecting its victims through inflicted emotional trauma, Smile immediately runs the risk of coming off as insensitive. The film opens with a scene in which 10-year-old Rose finds her mother’s body shortly after she overdosed, and establishes that the resulting trauma remains unresolved in her adult life. Smile even goes as far as to hint that other victims had similar traumatic histories, which again seems a slightly risky narrative thread.
From here, Smile begins to explore Rose’s experiences as her hallucinations worsen and those around her begin to extricate themselves from her life. She finds herself increasingly isolated even as she struggles to trust her own senses, and that is where Smile seemingly begins to make a statement on schizophrenia and similar conditions. It begins to assert that should Rose confront her trauma – not just her patient’s death but her mother’s, too – that she may find a way to survive, and so Rose heads to her childhood home.
This sets up an ending with an incredibly problematic message. As one of the major themes of the film is the difficulties of living with mental illness, Smile‘s ending feels incredibly dismissive and harmful, implying that trauma or psychosis are insurmountable barriers to happiness, and that Rose is simply doomed to pass on her pain to those who care about her. Though nothing of the sort is explicitly stated, it’s a film that grapples with tricky themes, and it doesn’t carry them off well, making it seem an irresponsible and ultimately ill-advised narrative.
Despite Irresponsible Storytelling, Smile Delivers Exceptional Scares
Though Smile can be interpreted to be somewhat problematic, when judged at face value, it’s a good horror movie. Not only does it deliver several incredible jump scares, but it creates an atmosphere of extreme tension and distrust that keeps the viewer on edge at all times. There’s a low-level undercurrent of malevolence that makes Smile feel relentlessly unnerving, particularly as it establishes early on that Rose may not be a particularly reliable narrator. That elevates its ability to scare its audience significantly, and it’s backed up by convincing turns from its tight-knit cast.
There are a handful of moments that are almost gleefully visceral, and those are the moments that keep Smile fun. These moments really highlight Smile‘s excellent production values, with monsters as visually repulsive as they are terrifying. It also projects these visual horrors outward, with the implications being that many of these moments (or all of them, potentially) only exist within Rose’s mind. In this, Smile is layered enough to convey a sense of depth, but never so convoluted as to jumble the line of its narrative.
Ultimately, Smile is a well-made horror movie with some potential issues regarding its deeper themes. This leads to a dissatisfying ending that really doesn’t do justice to the film or its characters, and that goes some way to undermining the things that make Smile so good. Despite the narrative issues, Smile does manage to achieve what any horror movie should: it scares and unnerves its audience throughout.
Summary: Smile is genuinely surprising in its quality – though it undermines its central themes with a questionable ending, it’s a thought-provoking and traumatically tense experience that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.
Highlights: Smile‘s willingness to bring its scares into broad daylight is particularly commendable, and it works with unexpected efficiency.