Smile should be commended for its relatively brilliant marketing campaign alone. From its memorably creepy trailer and posters to its actors ambushing sporting events and morning news to its immediately accessible premise, whoever they’ve got in charge of selling this movie over at Paramount deserves a promotion. But is the movie itself actually worth your time in addition to your dollars? Surprisingly, yes. Smile may have the usual horror elements that audiences have grown accustomed to and fairly predictable plotting to boot, but the sheer skill on display from writer / director Parker Finn and his team turns the all-too-familiar into one of the scariest movies of the year. It’s a perfect horror experience for October theatergoers, one that is sure to make a killing with a lively audience.
Based on Finn’s 2020 short Laura Hasn’t Slept, the film is centered on Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a therapist working long hours at her local hospital who suddenly experiences a strange and horrific event unfold before her very eyes. Rose bears witness to the gruesome death of one of her patients, Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), who had been growing increasingly erratic and paranoid that something was out to get her. Laura suffered from vivid hallucinations that took their toll on the young woman and in the aftermath of her death, Rose finds herself beginning to see the exact same terrifying things - namely, various wide and unsettling smiles plastered onto the faces of friends, family and even strangers.
Smile’s setup is deceptively simple. Rose basically has about a week before whatever killed Laura kills her as well, following the tried and true route of supernatural curses that helped make movies like The Ring or Final Destination or It Follows such iconic horror staples. Finn overloads his movie with your standard jump scares and fakeouts, but each one is done so proficiently that it makes the old art of spooking unsuspecting viewers feel almost new again. Each individual scare is a wonderful collision of creepy atmosphere, methodical and tension-building camerawork from cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, impeccable sound design, and masterful editing done by Elliot Greenberg.
Anchoring it all is the outstanding lead performance from Bacon (yes, you’ve probably guessed who her father is), who’s able to convey all of the visceral, genuine terror that befalls her character while also delivering on Rose’s mental downward spiral as she plunges into the depths of a nervous breakdown. The film is equal parts supernatural and psychological horror, playing up doubts about whether or not what Rose is experiencing is actually real or a trauma-induced psychosis. Concerned coworkers (oh my god it’s Kal Penn!) talk about how little sleep she’s been getting and how overworked she is. Her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) as well as Rose’s personal therapist (Robin Weigert) blame the unresolved nightmares of her past, particularly those that involve her mother (Dora Kiss).
Smile is a horror movie about (what else?) trauma; how it sticks to us very much like a supernatural curse and how it can haunt our every waking moment. It’s also a story about mental illness, showing the tragedy of seeing and hearing things that no one else can and struggling to be believed or even sympathized with. The worse things get for Rose in her head, the more her personal life and relationships fall apart. These issues are tackled in the bluntest ways possible, however. Those wanting some nuance will have to look elsewhere. And naturally, Rose’s story inevitably veers in the direction of how one must face their fears and overcome them - an expected trajectory that can make the film’s second half begin to drag when compared to the thrills of its first.
Yet Smile proves itself to have far more clever tricks up its sleeve than anyone (myself included) probably expected. To spoil anything would be to ruin the fun, but I will say that anytime the film began to lose me or become too obvious it would then shift gears in wonderfully nasty ways. I ended up loving it. This is a great looking and genuinely scary film that’s far more engaging than it may have any right to be. It certainly demands to be seen with friends in a packed theater. It’s astounding that this is Parker Finn’s feature debut - horror fans should keep a close eye on whatever it is the filmmaker decides to frighten us with next.
‘Smile’ is now playing in theaters.