Smile Like You Mean It

As anyone who reads my reviews knows, the pandemic was an arduous journey that none of us have come out of unscathed. I’ve probably written that sentence at least twenty different ways by now, and while I’ve grown tired of writing it, I have to wonder what effect it has on the reader. Are you taken back to those unsure days of lockdown, happy we’ve made it this far? Or did you lose someone and can’t escape the melancholy of abject trauma while looking for an escape from it in movie news and reviews? If the latter is the case, I’m sorry for my role in reminding you here, but Parker Finn’s Smile would rather you confront it, face-to-grinning-face.

The Smile poster shows Laura's face smiling as the body bag she's in is zipped up
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Smile is a psychological supernatural thriller that pits overworked doctor Rose (Mare of Easttown’s Sosie Bacon) against an unseen demonic force. This entity comes to her by way of a newly admitted psych ward patient, Laura (All Cheerleaders Die’s Caitlin Stasey), who claims she sees a terrifyingly ominous smiling face on, well…everyone. During her time in Rose’s care, Laura suffers an episode that results in her inflicting fatally gruesome harm on herself while never breaking from the creepy grin and steely gaze. From there, the disturbing event becomes an inescapable curse for Rose, first depriving her of sleep, taking her job, and straining her relationships with her fiancé (The Boys’ Jessie T. Usher) and sister (The Guilty’s Gillian Zinser) as she tries to come to grips with some way to stop from becoming the next victim.

With every escalation, Finn creates a remarkably innovative monster that alienates its victims through tactics that make them appear psychologically unsound. Finn’s earlier short film, Laura Hasn’t Slept, serves almost like a prequel to Smile, though perhaps as another link in Smile’s suicide chain. Stasey reprises her character of the titular Laura in the feature as a callback to the short, but events differ slightly between the films. However, the nightmarish feeling of being unable to discern reality from hallucination is the tether that remains between them.

Reveling in the unease cast by a simple, warm, and inviting gesture, Smile takes the most basic human asset and imbues it with malicious intent. As Rose struggles at the start of the film, breaking glasses in her kitchen as she believes she’s only imagining Laura smiling at her from a few feet away, the audience is plagued with the gravity of guilt. Bacon treats the scene with grace and remorse, and there’s threatening darkness in this early portion that, in my impression, doesn’t get played with enough. A dark cloud of eerie dread fills the silences in these scenes, where Rose is alone in her home and before the score picks back up. If the intent were to craft something to stay with the audience beyond the film’s runtime, it proves it can. However, instead of creating something perpetually haunting, Smile becomes exactly what the audience expects, and while it’s not ideal, it’s still quite entertaining.

Rose sits pensively in front of a bookcase in Smile

As you might assume from the countless television spots and trailers, Smile opts for an investigative effort with some inspiration from a slew of Japanese horror titles. Depression aspects of Kairo (Pulse) loom heavily over a Ringu (The Ring) plot line that teams Rose with her cop ex-boyfriend Joel (Scream 5’s Kyle Gallner) as they search for answers to stop the 4-day cycle that ends with suicide and a newly traumatized host. Plotwise, it really isn’t anything that we haven’t seen before. Still, the film’s subtext is well intertwined, from hiding pain behind a row of pearly whites to simply asking for compassion and understanding while coping with inexplicable burdens. And while you may think that is the right atmosphere for a cripplingly morose and darkly affecting film, Smile is more of a roller coaster of jump scares and disquieting images.

Here’s the deal, I had a lot of high hopes for Smile, and I went into the film with curious excitement. Some of that was met brilliantly with psychological surrealness, obsessive focus, gorgeous cinematography by Charlie Sarroff (Relic), and a couple of blindsiding moments. In essence, the movie is a lot of fun. However, this is the type of concept that could just as easily tear a person’s reality apart, and, in that vein, I found it exceptionally tame. While Smile is a fine horror flick with freaky scenes to pop popcorn to and fleeting scares meant to be enjoyed along with a reactive audience, it misses the mark of its magnificent potential. I hate to use the term mainstream, but that’s what Smile felt like; a mainstream movie whose ending considers its franchise possibilities.

Children cower to the left of a smiling women sitting in a chair

The first two acts of the film offer a lot worth liking. The dialogue is rich, the anxiety is intense, and our protagonist’s face is a glowing, raw, emotional canvas. Yet, as Rose finds her time is limited in the second act, both she, and the film, fall into the malaise of stereotypical horror setups and then look for a way out. Several clues are placed to foreshadow the film’s ending, so nothing about Smile, except for its jump scares, ever ascends to anything shocking. I also felt the film’s climax was more innovative and frighteningly done in a 1998 Gregory Hoblit film—chase that lead if you want, but it’s a spoiler if you’ve seen it.

Returning to my opening statements concerning covid, Smile hits differently coming out at a time like this. Sitting in a crowded theater watching the film with a few hundred people is bizarre now, given all that has happened in the past few years. As Smile becomes psychologically unhinged, utilizing an It Follows mentality, trading sex for psychosis that moves virally from one psychologically shaken individual to the next, it somehow made me feel more connected to the crowd than I have during other releases. That may be the most profound part of the movie because psychological horror films are where you expect to find paranoia, not camaraderie. We’re all a little traumatized, some more so than others, and while we deal with the aftermath of covid, we hide our pain behind the mask of an exhausting smirk.

I continue to go back and forth on Smile, wishing it were intrinsically scary enough to sit and haunt me longer, but also thankful for its airiness in the theater; it was more than a little cathartic to laugh and scream together as a crowd for two hours. See it in the theater if you can because I don’t think this one will have the same effect at home alone in the dark.

Smile is playing exclusively in theaters beginning September 30.

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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