The movie Smile does not, in fact, begin with a smile. No, the first face we see is exhibiting a much more troubling expression. Then, as the camera pans to the rest of the scenery, we’re immediately confronted with the real-life theme that is the root of the terror – namely, depression and prescription drugs. Is this the quickest a movie has visualized its central theme? It’s certainly in the running, although I wouldn’t say this opening shot primes you for a deep meditative dive into the topic of mental health. Instead, Smile uses these real-world issues as mere trappings, plot devices designed to set up a spooky premise about supernatural events terrorizing our protagonists. This idea is reminiscent of The Grudge, The Ring, It Follows. That Julianne Moore sci-fi horror flick, The Forgotten, which fittingly no one remembers. Also, that one where the cell phones started killing everybody, which started as just a joke in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) but was somehow turned into a real movie.
Smile is the natural progression, perhaps even endpoint, of those various films while simultaneously coming off as an idea that shouldn’t even exist. It sounds more like an SNL sketch, and the challenge the filmmakers have is to see how long they can keep you invested in the drama before the comedic undertones become too apparent to ignore. That drama centers on Rose (Sosie Bacon), a psychiatrist with a traumatic childhood that paves the way for her career choice. However, everything seems fine in her current life until she bears witness to an unspeakable tragedy. It is a tense, terrifying sequence that would break anyone down. However, perhaps even more ominous is that the victim talked of seeing a smile etched on the face of everyone around her, haunting her endlessly.
The premise features a very simple but effective parlor trick. But perhaps the biggest scare in the movie occurs when we, the audience, can’t see the smile. Instead, we can only see one of the afflicted react to the smile with harrowing, blood-curdling screams. Caitlin Stasey instantly hits the pantheon of great Scream Queens; you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone more convincingly terrified. After the inciting incident, it’s Rose who begins to see a frightening sight – people around her begin to wear a mischievous grin.
As well-made as the film is, its absurdity often outpaces its technical achievements. There is a point in the movie where Rose is having a conversation in an office. The scene ends, and we’re greeted with a ridiculously high overhead shot that shows a young adult having a manic episode on a stretcher. However, we soon realize the reason the camera is placed so high, as it pans from the stretcher and through the window of an office in a multi-story building. It’s a great-looking shot. But then it dawns on you that the film goes through all of these theatrics to transition from a scene in an office to… another scene in an office. I can’t think of a better encapsulation of the experience of watching Smile – doing the most to distract you from how thin the storytelling is.
It’s that commitment to making this feel like a complete movie that feels both unnecessary and admirable. When watching Smile, your primary focus is to get to the scenes with smiles. And those scenes are worth the price of admission; they are genuinely unsettling and mesmerizing. But when those scenes aren’t happening, you’re constantly thinking about getting back to those setpieces. Thus, the drama of the movie eventually becomes comedic, as we wonder just how much the movie is going to pad itself out. But don’t worry, it goes through the entire psychological horror movie bingo card to crawl to its nearly two-hour runtime.
One aspect of the film I found fascinating was the relationship between Rose and her fiancée, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher). Note that Usher is more famous and has appeared in more well-known films than Bacon. However, his first appearance in this film is so unremarkable that I had forgotten he was in the movie when he arrived a second time. Ditto for his third appearance. By his 4th appearance, he’s so unsympathetic to Rose’s plight that he’s dangerously close to becoming the villain of the entire story – their relationship subplot finally left an impression. He also tends to startle Rose whenever he shows up. But Rose has to take some blame for these encounters; at one point, she’s seen holding a glass in the dark before dropping it. The light bill has been paid in full for no reason, but here we are. But then, later in the movie, SHE DOES IT AGAIN. Stop holding a glass in the dark, you buffoon. This isn’t a Buster Keaton movie.
But that’s why this movie, against all odds, holds our attention. The story, the family drama, and Rose’s history with her mother are the least interesting parts. There’s a version of this movie where that backstory is fleshed out, gripping you in a timely tale about our relationship with pills, along with a kinder and more accurate depiction of mental health. Unfortunately, Smile isn’t interested in that, and it’s way more about the scares and the puzzling moments. Thus, we’re left to ponder the silliness of it all and the idiosyncrasies of the director’s choices.
This movie is helmed by Parker Finn, who also directed the short film, Laura Hasn’t Slept, on which the movie is based on. He has an eye for what scares human beings about ourselves, the ways in which the body can contort to express an unease, a silent evil. What is less successful is the actual narrative aspect of the movie, utilizing templates from similar films to get from one setpiece to another. Maybe that’s something the director will improve upon with time, as he also wrote the screenplay.
But despite its narrative shortcomings, Smile is a success because its concept is just too enticing on its own, while the cast turns in appropriately over-the-top performances. I’ve already mentioned my appreciation for Stasey, but Bacon should also be commended for such a strong lead performance. Jack Sochet nearly steals the movie as Carl, sure to invade the nightmares of quite a few viewers. These exploits into madness play the balancing act of terror and camp. Fear and laughter go hand and hand with such a ridiculous story. The initial goal is to scare you, but at some point, you’ll feel the need to laugh. I’m convinced that was the point all along. The evidence is in the title.