Smile [Review]

Parker Finn’s directorial debut, Smile, is initially exciting and terrifying. Still, its over-reliance on jumpscares and fake-outs and lack of thematic resolution left me with a frown rather than a grin. 

Horror is a genre that always finds a way to horrify, intrigue, and enlighten the minds of its audience. It is, in my opinion, the most fascinating and creative genre. Unfortunately, big studio horror pictures have dealt with some of the same topics in the last couple of years. Modern horror films tend to revolve around trauma. I even remember that someone did an edited video of every time Jamie Lee Curtis said the word ‘trauma’ during her Halloween Kills interviews. There’s enough space to cover such themes. Still, using it repeatedly tends to be tiresome if executed poorly. Does this theme have a limitless quantity of concepts to play with? It may have since it’s a universal thing that everyone goes through, but still, I wish younger filmmakers would incline to other themes. 

Another addition to this array of modern horror pictures about “trauma” is Parker Finn’s directorial debut, Smile. I was excited to see this film for several reasons. The first one is because of the plain image of a villainous grin – the smile that wasn’t assuring safety or warmth but pure evil and cathartic iniquity. It was an image that stayed with you, a forced smile that you are in awe of and, at the same time. The second reason is marketing, which deserves a lot of praise. It’s simple yet brilliant. The marketing revolved around having actors in big events (baseball games, football arenas, among other venues) standing up while giving a malevolent smile to the camera. It was something extraordinary; marketing for horror movies should be like this instead of going the very cheap route of not doing absolutely anything. However, after having seen the film, I found myself quite disappointed. 

Although its core concept is intriguing, and there are well-executed frights, its backbone is not as original as one might expect. Smile follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who works 80-hour weeks as a therapist at a psychiatric hospital and has a case of insomnia – she can’t sleep due to something shaking in her core. Rose is trying to maintain her sanity while helping all those who go to the emergency room in need of her assistance. However, one traumatic event will wake up a demon from the past that will have her life spiraling to an even darker side. A recently-admitted patient commits suicide in front of her, and she does as such with the biggest and most unsettling smile imaginable. Rose is startled; she can’t shake off the image of that smile on the patient’s face, to the point where she is beginning to see it everywhere, as if it were following her. 

To find out what’s haunting her, Rose activates detective mode and searches for answers to the series of people killing themselves and their respective connections with one another. Parker Finn’s short film, Laura Hasn’t Slept, has been expanded into a two-hour feature, creating the movie we know as Smile. And it certainly feels as if it was a smaller-scale idea being stretched to capacity. You could feel every minute of the feature, especially in its dragging and plodding second act and the beginning of the third act. As each minute passed, there was this sensation that Smile’s central idea wasn’t strong enough to suffice its runtime. That doesn’t mean that the picture isn’t effective; it’s compelling when it is most simplistic, but its structure is broken to an unfixable point. The haphazard pacing moves roughly through the film’s 115-minute runtime, filling its narrative holes with jumpscares ranging from quite unnerving to simply shoddy.

Some audiences may love the over-reliance on fake-outs and jumpscares. However, like me, some will get tired of it equally. It seems like a cheap tactic to scare the audience or fill the screen with tension, but if it loses its effect quickly you do one after the other. It is distracting – making one lose focus on the themes of trauma and mental health sporadically scattered throughout the movie. There are moments when one feels it is being done for comedic purposes. And that might be true since there are comedic elements in Smile. Yet, Parker Finn does not handle those scenes correctly; the lines feel stilted and wooden instead of funny. To give credit where credit is due, the set-up of the jumpscares, whether they work or not, is tightly planned and timed out. Thanks to Cristóbal Tapia de Veer’s score and the sound crew’s effort, it takes time to embalm the atmosphere with dread. 

In Smile, Parker Finn borrows a lot of David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 hit It Follows, but it never captures what made that film tremendous and terrifying. Finn leaves some scenes with just the right amount of silence so that the scares that do work sneak up on you. There are also a lot of ineffective copy-and-paste maneuvers from other modern horror films to ease up the tension that, just like its jumpscares, work on a 50/50 basis. The element of having an unseeable presence tapping your shoulder at all times, causing your state of mind to deteriorate rapidly as each day passes, is fantastic. Yet, the way Finn does it feels uncoordinated because the audience doesn’t feel the threat at all times. For that type of story to be effective, there needs to be a claustrophobic sensation as the horrors keep heightening, which in the case of Smile, diminishes slowly. In addition, one notices the upside-down camera shots from Midsommar and references to The Ring, which I can’t spoil what exactly it is alluding to other than its curse movie elements. 

Although he may borrow from other filmmakers, there are moments in Smile that showcase Finn’s talents – the tightly knit first act, the first kill’s procedure, and the “take-your-time” editing process to the movie’s development. Even if it isn’t directed with great panache, Finn does have a good handle on Smile’s dramatic scenes. Its script may need some work, but those scenes find their footing as the story progresses. There might be moments where things are a tad uneven, but at least the scenes’ actors are dedicated and focused on the ideas Finn wants to present. Sosie Bacon easily sells the fractured lines of the script, and her performance gets even better as her character spirals into madness, especially in the last act. She has a great “frightened to death” face, and her reactions sharpened the horrors in Smile. These horrors may not work ultimately, but Finn could rely on the film’s actors to give it the jolt it necessarily needs. In addition, significant props to Caitlin Stasey (who plays Laura Weaver). Stasey isn’t in the movie for quite a long time, but her presence is felt throughout the film and even beyond its runtime because her devilish smile is haunting. 

In the last act, there is a point where everyone thought it was going to go full Malignant with a face-ripping dream sequence, but then it tones it down. And everyone in the theater went from fully psyched nature to disappointment. I wished its Smile stuck to its guns and went full bonkers mode. In the end, unfortunately, the curse caused by the reckoning smiles doesn’t lead up to much thematic heft. Finn spirals out of control, in togetherness with the film’s central character, and lands on an unassuming finale with poor CGI. Its final shot is brilliant, as the pessimism heightens the traumatic events occurring to the characters. Yet again, Smile’s conclusion feels like a second-draft horror concoction rather than a polished ending with a thematic resolution.

I am looking forward to Parker Finn’s next feature, but his debut disappointed me highly, as my initial smile when I entered the cinema ended up as more of a frown once the credits rolled.