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Dread-Filled Horror Smile Aims Its Toothy Grin at Trauma

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Dread-Filled Horror <i>Smile</i> Aims Its Toothy Grin at Trauma

Smile may not impress true students of the horror genre, adherents to the dark tradition, but for novices and the easily scared or sensitive, it’s a gruesome and macabre thrill ride that tries to talk about trauma as its characters struggle to unpack it. The movie cycles between and draws on the traditions of recent “elevated” horror as well as sensational exploitation films of the later 20th century. Its main thrust is as a curse movie, reminiscent of mid-00s to 2010s films such as The Grudge and It Follows, while also sharing some of its vibe and structure with psychological-supernatural horror like Daniel Isn’t Real, another movie about trauma activating a supernatural violent streak.

Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a clinical psychiatrist, starts to experience an apparent haunting after witnessing a patient (Caitlin Stasey) kill herself after pleading for her help. Her cop ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner) interviews her about this experience and helps her investigate a chain of suicides. Cotter got into the mental health profession due to her own devastating childhood trauma: Finding her mother dead in bed. She’s also working 80-hour weeks, so her “curse” comes across to some of her social circle, such as her boss (Kal Penn) or boyfriend (Jessie T. Usher), as an exhausted mental breakdown. This breakdown includes, but is not limited to, ruining her sister’s (Gillian Zinser) party for her young son.

Smile is largely a movie about dread, hopelessness and the inability to escape the inevitable. It succeeds in building those feelings while thriving on jump scares, of which there are many. Of course, to build maximum tension, the camera and music sometimes lead us to think one is coming that doesn’t. For some viewers, this might wear out its welcome but—aside from putting one of the more shocking scares in the trailer and rendering it effectively moot—Smile had me on the ropes throughout.

I found it terrifying, though it is not without its structural and writing problems. And, if you’ve got a long or thorough history with the genre, you’ll recognize many of the movie’s borrowed tricks. The M. Night Shyamalan-derived upside-down camera is one that stands out—titillating on first use, but less and less like a thematic contribution as the film goes on and it keeps popping up. That said, there are some interesting camera choices, at times matched with performances that border on outlandish, combining to reference an older style of filmmaking.

Conversely, some of its more modern visuals are truly, remarkably gruesome. The titular haunting phenomenon, portrayed by actors’ creepy smiles that duplicate across social media, can be quite unnerving. It’s an effective use of CGI that, later in the film’s running, reminded me of a disturbing anime brought to life. At the same time, unclear haunting rules—and the race to figure them out—add to the tension.

But Smile would be better served with a shorter runtime, as it eventually loses some of its thematic threads. Parker Finn’s direction does not bring the best performances out of all their actors or allow those performances to cohere. Simultaneously, while the plot is structured reasonably, some scenes seem superfluous, and the dialogue frequently leaves much to be desired. Whole scenes and subplots could be pulled out and the film would be better off: Tension in Cotter’s romantic relationship is built up, then underdeveloped and left aside; at some point, Usher disappears from the movie and you wonder if he should have been in it at all.

In fact, Bacon’s performance almost feels out of place. Though it’s matched in intensity by Zinser, it points at buried trauma in frustratingly inarticulate ways. Smile circles the target around Rose’s issues, suppressing her feelings in conversations with her boyfriend and her sister. She has small moments of hot-blooded-but-not-unwarranted outbursts that she takes back immediately. There’s something interesting about a murderous smiling curse attaching itself to a woman that’s conditioned herself to push down any feelings her loved ones might not like, but Smile drifts away from that. It focuses on how trauma has defined her life as a separate issue, rather than intertwining the two.

The movie is interested in the stigmas around mental health problems, and the pressure individuals generally and career-minded women specifically have to keep their problems to themselves, but this mostly comes across in the repeated concern individuals have with being considered “crazy.” Laura worries Rose thinks she’s crazy, then Rose immediately runs into a police officer that’s dismissive of Laura’s suicide—it happened at a mental hospital, where he thinks “crazy” people belong. Rose worries Trevor and her sister will dismiss her concerns, motivated to outbursts by the curse haunting her, and fails to articulate herself well as the curse claws at her psyche. The problems in Rose’s work life and the mystery plot combine to relate only a slight consciousness about the limited resources of the medical field, married with a hyper-awareness of how quick society is to discard those it considers “crazy” or otherwise unwell. Smile is also about how trauma shapes and informs lives and decisions, opening and closing with Rose’s struggles witnessing the aftermath of her mother’s apparent suicide, and about cycles of trauma and violence—its curse communicated from person to person through witnessing or experiencing psychologically damaging acts of violence. If this were only window dressing for jump scares, it might feel tacky, but the thematic subtext greatly contributes to Smile’s dread and paranoia.

These emotionally meaningful portions can feel functionally separate from the overarching narrative, though they are better connected with that than the occasional moments of intentional humor. The gags might work as isolated events but are out of step with the rest of the movie’s tone. Its unintentional humor, on the other hand, coming from some of the performances, contributes more to the idea that Finn wants his feature debut to lean into camp.

Some silliness notwithstanding, Smile successfully builds and reproduces dread. While it uses trauma as a narrative theme, it doesn’t feel completely exploitative or shallow. Because the haunting is unambiguously happening, the trauma discussion doesn’t feel like a red herring but rather a parallel conversation. Some of the other conversations—namely the pressure for women that want to succeed in the workplace having to suppress their mental and emotional problems around emotionally unavailable or immature partners—fall to the wayside. While genre veterans may effectively point at what and where it borrows, Smile will positively terrify casual fans of horror. It’s creepy, dreadful and jumpy.

Director: Parker Finn
Writer:Parker Finn
Starring: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn, Rob Morgan
Release Date: September 30, 2022


Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.