Written and Directed by Parker Finn.
Starring Sosie Bacon, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Jessie T. Usher, Rob Morgan, Kal Penn, Robin Weigert, Judy Reyes, Gillian Zinser, Dora Kiss, Nick Arapoglou, Jared Johnston, Felix Melendez Jr., Matthew Lamb, Jack Sochet, and Meghan Brown Pratt.
After witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, Dr. Rose Cotter starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can’t explain. Rose must confront her troubling past to survive and escape her horrifying new reality.
Writer/director Parker Finn (making his feature-length debut, adapting his short story Laura Hasn’t Slept), Smile feels fresh while cobbling together several influences for its bluntly stated treatise on childhood trauma and PTSD. The problem is that the script is so upfront (and questionably executed) that the admittedly creepy smile-based suicidal horror (passed on to one victim at a time) rarely registers the associated drama as meaningful or compelling.
Sosie Bacon’s (bearing a staggering resemblance to her father Kevin Bacon) psychological profiler Rose Cotter is the exception whenever simply allowed to freak out and break down on the screen, especially during baggage-bursting exchanges with her older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) that was able to escape their abusive mother who committed suicide. When Parker Finn is not saddling her with mainstream jump-scare bores or endless hallucination sequences that, while sometimes unsettlingly graphic, become annoyingly repetitive since it’s clear the storytelling can’t be trusted, the solid character work does occasionally crack through.
More frustrating, one of those hallucinations undoes a disturbing choice that would have made for a more rewardingly nasty slice of horror. It also can’t be argued that Smile shouldn’t go down that route which would eliminate any poignant thematic purpose because the actual ending is far more clichéd and insulting to anyone taking the concept of confronting trauma seriously.
It’s also disappointing that one can rattle off so many mistakes and missed opportunities without getting to the laughable visualization of the Smile demon, who looks like a towering shirtless version of Marilyn Manson that hasn’t showered since the release of The Beautiful People. None of this is salvaged by the lousy CGI (and I do understand some of these teams are overworked, which needs to be addressed), which wouldn’t be an issue if the rest of the movie offered up relentless screams and scares.
All of this is a shame since the set-up instills a sense of fear and isolation on the horizon. Upon witnessing a new patient ramble on and on about literally seeing a smiling demon (capable of manipulating his actions and reality), the man loses complete control and violently ends his life; bloodshed that one presumes would want to be kept offscreen as the narrative intends to take mental health seriously but must be shown because of the genre. It’s not necessarily a can’t-win scenario Parker Finn has written himself into, but he sometimes makes the wrong choice. Then again, maybe Smile would feel safe and lame without committing to the bit, although the violence isn’t frequent enough not to take things seriously.
There’s a brief section where Smile somewhat corrects course, involving a scarring birthday present to her nephew. As a result, Holly bars Rose (who is now cursed and alienating everyone talking about spirits and demons) from being around her son anymore, citing that he is traumatized, suggesting that maybe the story will dive deeper into these personal moments, including Rose’s story, present and ten years old when her mother took her life.
Instead, Rose seeks the advice of ex-boyfriend police officer Joel (Kyle Gallner) for a litany of convenient reasons; he has the information she needs on his computer to go down the rabbit hole of who and how the curse has been passed on to (along with how to break the sinister cycle), he still has feelings. She and her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) are convinced she is loony while questioning the upcoming marriage and bringing in her former psychiatrist Dr. Madeleine Northcott (Robin Weigert), a subplot that is abruptly dropped.
There is some demented fun observing the creative suicides the filmmakers have come up with, but again, to what purpose? Inevitably, Smile embraces all of its worst aspects; the jump-scares, the repetitiveness, the hammering home of its misguided message, without even having the decency to conjure up a visually terrifying villain (a better question is why does it need to be revealed at all when the unknown, especially here, effectively burrows deeper under the skin?). That’s doubly unfortunate, considering the photography from Charlie Sarroff is aware of when to linger on an image or how to creatively deploy a tracking shot (resulting in the only jump-scare that works).
Smile elicits a stone face; it’s a twist on tried-and-true tropes without much wit or paralyzing terror to benefit an impressive Sosie Bacon. However, there is probably a better movie here when retooled for deeper characterization and an understanding that less brutality and creature on screen is sometimes more in your thematically heavy horror.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com