Smile (FANTASTIC) Turns a Grin with Familiar and plodding Supernatural Scares
First Non-Festival Release: September 28, 2022 (Theatrical Release)
Director: Parker Finn
Writer: Parker Finn
Runtime: 115 Minutes
Starring: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
This film’s review was written after its screening at the Fantastic Film Festival in 2022.
Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a workaholic emergency room therapist who is forced to witness her newest patient, Laura (Caitlin Stasey) die by suicide. Moments before, Laura revealed that she has been pursued by an invisible entity that wears the faces of those around her with a terrifying grin. Initially, Rose brushes it off, but as the days pass, she finds herself haunted by the same visions as her former patient. She confides in her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) who doesn’t believe her. Her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), however, is convinced after they discover a horrific pattern of suicides and murders stemming from Laura.
Technically sound, curse-driven Smile falters due to uneven pacing and reliance on tired tropes despite striking imagery.
Curses are typically horror fodder for East Asian horror cinema, especially after the influx of early 2000s films that mined the concept to the point of oversaturation. Smile creates an excellent idea for a curse that taps into primal fears surrounding uncanny facial expressions. Unfortunately, as the terror is unwound, it gets messier and less engaging. Ambiguity is an excellent tool for horror creators to unnerve their audiences, but with the additional access at the disposal of Rose and Joel, it feels silly that they only learned as much as they do.
Much of Smile falls on the back of Sosie Bacon, as Rose is in nearly every scene. Bacon plays Rose with a sensitive and determined approach one might see in an actual therapy session. Through her, Rose is kind, thoughtful, and dedicated to her work. This shines on as she slowly deteriorates to the effects of the curse by the film’s end. Kyle Gallner does an excellent job as usual but is given far less material to develop Joel beyond the caring secondary character archetype.
This works because Smile is all about Rose. Smile uses Rose’s own struggles with guilt to explore how trauma acts like an infection. When each character succumbs to the curse and dies by suicide, the wounds they inflict on those who witness become their own trauma. This cycle of victimization continues until someone decides to break it. Once the third act rolls in, Rose’s horrifying backstory is fully shared, explaining why she is so hellbent on helping others.
Even the concept of the titular smile supports this. In the beginning, there are multiple occasions where Rose puts on a brave face and downplays her own suffering to not upset company or the mood. Despite this, she still finds ways to hurt those around her because she alone cannot control the onslaught of attacks against her. She seeks help and is shot down, as people refuse to believe or listen to her. The unfortunate reality is that when people do finally come around, it is too late, and the cycle continues.
Meandering through its two-hour runtime, Smile could use some purposeful culling to reduce the fat from the narrative. Some of the scare sequences are especially ill-timed within the plot despite each scare being well-produced thanks to great editing and clever filmmaking. There is a serious disconnect between the length and frequency of horrific moments in the film for the type of tension it tries to create. Furthermore, there are plenty of moments of comic relief that feel out of place. The tension isn’t eased with their inclusion, but, instead, erased. For the most part, Smile employs great special effects work. This is especially true for the final reveal, which is among the most haunting visuals of the year.
Its memorable premise and clever marketing campaign disguise a movie that is primarily fine. Smile treads through familiar territory without offering much in the way of plot development and escalating tension. Its egregious pacing issues and inability to add flair to the formulas of J-horror and PG-13 remakes of the early aughts make it a laborious watch. What Smile does achieve, however, is its underlying messages on mental health and presentation to society, which blends seamlessly with the horror of the film. Great camerawork, lighting, editing, and sound design elevate it to the best of the bland. Hopefully, all this information doesn’t deter you from turning up to see a nice Smile at the cinema.
Overall Score? 5.5/10