“Smile” begins with an inescapable trauma, and like a majority of the movie’s unnerving journey, something incredibly difficult to face head-on.
Director Parker Finn’s debut movie focuses on therapist Rose Cotter, played by Sosie Bacon, who witnesses a gruesome suicide by one of her patients. Rose begins to experience more and more frightening images and hallucinations that unravel a deeper story beneath her new reality.
This movie’s up-and-down marketing approach pushed its gimmick a little too much, even featuring a cutting-edge promotion featuring smiling MLB game patrons. What did this mixed approach lead to? An actually well thought-out and intriguing premise that manages to mostly deliver on its thematic ambitions.
Horror film concepts work at their best when they can wear the main character down in an effective manner with an antagonist that truly feels unavoidable. The evil forces in “Smile” torment and scare Rose an ample amount of times to repeatedly wear her down, but also the viewer. The jump scares and psychological horror never let up for a second, especially during multiple scenes of playing tricks on the audience. Finn utilizes neat editing tricks and uncommonly placed jump scares to keep things consistently refreshing inside this world of anguish Rose faces.
As the scares keep persisting, the flow of the film hits a lull in the middle that could have benefitted from more development of Rose and the supporting characters. Outside of a few hints, the film could have used further exploration of Rose’s past relationship with her ex, Joel, and Rose’s familial problems. A minor problem for sure, but the rounding out of these elements could have placed the film in a higher echelon.
Rose feels like someone you can actually empathize with and feel terrible for when she gets emotionally damaged. These qualities, along with her intelligence, help Rose stand out from common horror movie protagonists. A major contribution to this direction is owed to Bacon’s performance. Bacon feels relatable as a workaholic burying her trauma in years and years of denial. Her conflict with her sister shows a clashing of ways with coping with family issues, which Bacon portrays in an incredibly realistic manner. When given screen time, these complex layers of familial trauma and how it carries with you for the rest of your life add a lot of thematic depth. Bacon showed deft skill in traversing through those issues while also engaging the audience with her constant tribulations caused by the film’s antagonistic forces.
Finn seemed partial toward offering up some cheesy moments within the heavy tone of the film. A handful of jokes are sprinkled throughout but fail to achieve comedic relief against the intensity of the rest of the movie. Finn also puts this effort toward certain scene transitions and other moments that were far more effective, such as zoom-ins of eyeballs and windows that seamlessly glide to the next scene. A majority of the film’s cinematography, however, was less cheesy but extremely gut-wrenching. Slow pans hinting at scary reveals, whirly upside-down aerial shots and smart callback moments make for a very promising debut for the young director.
The film felt like it was coming to a natural conclusion but instead abandoned its message in favor of a shock value ending. These types of endings definitely have a place in Hollywood horror, but not in a movie where its theming could have stuck the landing in such a beautiful way. Despite ending with mixed signals in regard to its messaging, the entire ending sequence still managed to be extremely thrilling and terrifying to sit through.
The way “Smile” aligns its horrifying events with trauma’s effects on a person works absolute wonders. The way the scares are so unpredictable feels like a mirror of how trauma can resurface at random times. The varied methods Finn employs alongside Bacon’s powerhouse performance results in a stirring horror movie during the Halloween season. While the movie may not reach its lofty goals and sometimes stumbles, its terrors pierce through in an unforgettable fashion.