A maniacal grin goes a long way in this predictable yet still convincingly unsettling horror film about trauma.
September 29, 2022
If high-concept horror nasties get you grinning even when you're squirming, recoiling or peeking through your fingers, then expect Smile to live up to its name — in its first half, at least. A The Ring-meets-It Follows type of scarefest with nods to the Joker thrown in, it takes its titular term seriously, sporting one helluva creepy smirk again and again. The actual face doing the ghoulish beaming can change, and does, but the evil Cheshire Cat-esque look on each dial doesn't. Where 2011's not-at-all spooky The Muppets had a maniacal laugh, Smile does indeed possess a maniacal, skin-crawling, nightmare-inducing leer. In the film, the first character to chat about it, PhD student Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey, Bridge and Tunnel), explains it as "the worst smile I have ever seen in my life". She's in a hospital, telling psychiatrist Rose Cotter (Mare of Easttown's Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick), who clearly thinks she's hallucinating. But when the doctor sees that grin herself, she immediately knows that Laura's description couldn't be more accurate.
Toothy, deranged, preternaturally stretched and also frozen in place, the smile at the heart of Smile isn't easily forgotten — not that Rose need worry about that. Soon, it's haunting her days and nights by interrupting her work, and seeing her act erratically with patients to the concern of her boss (Kal Penn, Clarice). Rose upsets a whole party at her nephew's birthday, too, and makes her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T Usher, The Boys) have doubts about their future. There's a backstory: Rose's mother experienced mental illness, which is why she's so passionate about her work and her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser, The Guilty) is so dismissive. There's a backstory to the diabolical frown turned upside down also, which she's quickly trying to unravel with the help of her cop ex Joel (Kyle Gallner, Scream). She has to; Laura came to the hospital for assistance after her professor saw the smile first, then started beaming it, then took his own life in front of her — and now Rose is in the same situation.
It springs from debut feature writer/director Parker Finn's own 2020 short film Laura Hasn't Slept, but given how quickly Smile's nods to other horror flicks come — and how blatant they are — it's hardly astonishing how little in its narrative comes as a surprise. A malignant terror spreading virally on sight? A single-minded pursuer that can hop bodies, but always chases its new target with unyielding focus? Yes, as already mentioned, a J-horror franchise and its American remake are owed a huge debt, as is David Robert Mitchell's breakout 2014 hit. And yes, there's no way not to think of a certain Batman adversary each time that eerily exaggerated smirk flashes (given how many times the Joker has featured on-screen, it's downright inescapable). But when Smile is smiling — not just plastering that unnerving grin far and wide, but frequently directing it straight at the camera (and audience) — the fear is real.
It's an odd experience, the feeling of knowing how obvious every aspect of a movie's narrative is, yet still having it spark a physical reaction. Finn deploys jump-scares that do genuinely invite jumps. His film goes dark and grim in its look and atmosphere, tensely so, and with cinematographer Charlie Sarroff (Relic) adoring soft, restrained lighting that one imagines the realm between life and death could have. He knows when to let a moment and a shot hang, teasing out the inevitable but still making sure the payoff is felt. And, among all of that, the mood is Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar)-level bleak. The biggest kudos goes to (and the biggest responses come from) that hellish expression that could pop up anywhere on anyone, though. When Smile stops smiling, it's a blander movie — and although the fact that much of it is spliced together from elsewhere, and what isn't is largely generic, doesn't ever slip from view, that's also when the feature gets heftier.
A movie that gets its main eerie motif shocking and scaring to a spine-tingling degree, has enough technical nuts and bolts working as well, but ticks oh-so-many recognisable boxes otherwise, can also have something weighty to ponder — and Smile is that movie. Wading through trauma and its longterm effects is a horror genre favourite, with this film's version ruminating on the way that childhood struggles haunt with unshakeable and infernal malevolence. Making that force visible through a suicide-inducing, chomper-baring spirit isn't subtle, but nothing brandishing Smile's smile is overly trying to be. Layering in multiple generations multiple times in multiple ways is an effective touch, too. Still, Finn always seems to be playing with the easiest pieces and emotions, and making the easiest moves; those different instances of trauma, spread across lead, supporting and bit-part characters, also scream of dropping as many breadcrumbs as possible for potential sequels.
Smile will likely start a franchise — it has the bones to, even just with its twisted lips and the notion that distressing formative incidences leave a mark. Those smirks can keep adorning and plaguing other faces, and that pain can keep bubbling up. That said, anyone who follows in Bacon's footsteps will have a task ahead of them, especially in conveying how seeing the unhinged grin frazzles and wearies. Aided by camera placement and lighting, Smile's protagonist does indeed come across as a woman fraying in every aspect of her expression and her physicality. Watch enough horror movies and you'll know that showing extreme alarm too often comes down to widening eyes, an agape jaw and a bloodcurdling shriek in by-the-numbers fare; however, there's palpable exhaustion in Bacon's performance that speaks not just to being terrified but tired of spending a life battling many kinds of demons.
Gallner's sturdy support also leaves an imprint, and one of Smile's actual surprises comes if you're a Veronica Mars fan expecting him to keep playing the shady or nefarious part — something that hasn't just happened once in his career. As that stroke of casting shows, and Bacon's, there's more than enough in the film that clearly works, but there's still just as much that's almost-dispiritingly standard. Something that's an indisputable delight, a word that can never apply to all of the movie's accursed beaming: realising that plenty of Rose's story fits the lyrics of 'Footloose'. She's been working so hard punching her card. She gets a feeling that time's holding her down. She might crack if she doesn't cut loose — all while something is taking ahold of souls. Dancing isn't banned here and the elder Bacon doesn't pop up, but any flick that's legitimately unsettling and brings Footloose to mind is always going to deserve a hearty grin.
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