Smile asks: What if evil was transferred like a virus, working its way through the population through trauma and pain. Smile is director Parker Finn’s first feature film and takes a concept similar to what was seen in It Follows, and tries to amp up the unsettling looks. Delivering some disturbing moments and ample jump scares, Smile remains a somewhat shallow exploration of mental illness and evils of the past.
Smile wastes no time introducing the audience to its brutally unforgiving world. With the opening shots of a mother who has overdosed, we are introduced to Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), having just woken up from a seemingly recurring nightmare. Now working as a physiatrist trying to help people with mental illness, the countless years of trauma and pain are put on full display for the audience to see. This is a woman who does not sleep, spends all her time at work, and is trying to do better for the people around her than she is for herself.
It only makes sense that it is at this point that a young woman who is apparently suffering a complete break-down is admitted to the hospital, and Rose tries to help. Complaining of people with evil smiles, things with Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey) quickly devolved into suicide, leaving Rose traumatized anew. It is a brutal way to start the movie, and Smile embraces the nasty tone, transitioning into shockingly loud credits, giving the audience a feel for what they will expect over the 1h 55 m runtime.
“Smile uses the creepy tone and atmosphere well…”
Now infected by the evil force behind the smiling people, Rose slowly descends into madness, with the strings that connect her to her life broken away one by one. Even as her loved ones move to distance themselves from Rose’s life, an old flame and police detective Joel (Kyle Gallner) becomes an unlikely ally in trying to rid her of the unsettling curse.
There is a lot to unpack in Smile, both good and bad. The acting for the most part is survivable, with Sosie Bacon’s Rose feeling rightfully unhinged as she devolves as the smiling presence rips away all manner of sanity from her life. Kyle Gallner also does a good job as Joel, offering up some much-needed chemistry between him and Rose, something that saved much of Smile’s clunky dialog.
Smile uses the creepy tone and atmosphere well, building a steady sense of dread as the film goes on. There is something incredibly unsettling about people smiling for long periods of time, and even more so as jump scares are thrown into the mix to mess with Rose and the viewer’s sense of what is real and what is not. While Parker Finn crafts some great shocking scenes, the reliance on jump scares loses its impact well before the film’s third act, making it a more expected reality than something that pushes the envelope on what is scary.
Smile wears its many influences on its sleeve, with moments feeling akin to a Pulp Fiction of horror, borrowing elements and reinventing them for a new, off-putting purpose. Moments feel ripped out of films like Scream, The Ring, The Grudge, and It Follows, and honestly most of these scenes work, and give an expected dread that helps build the tension.
Even though many concepts work early on, as the film delves into its final act, the once interesting concepts are pushed a bit too far, making for more comedic than scary moments. There is an odd choice to use CGI to represent the smiling entity, and though it did a serviceable job looking creepy, it is never as frightening as basic people smiling with no rhyme or reason as bad things happen to them and around them. With a film that amps up the sense of nasty, brutal unease, only to have it spoiled by a CGI monster, you are in for a disappointing time.
CGI issues aside, Smile was a good attempt to build an unnerving world filled with the horrors of your own mind, and it does that for the most part. There are enough scenes to build tension, and the smiling people are the right kind of disturbing to make anyone’s skin crawl. Far less deep than it wants you to think, Smile is a fun, if not shallow descent into insanity that is well worth a watch.