Smile Is A Piercing but Meandering Horror Debut
A handful of times during its nearly two-hour runtime, Smile delivers on its simple but effective premise: smiles are sort of fucked up. Divorced from context – or, more specifically, in the wrong context – a facial gesture we associate with kindness and beauty can turn grotesque, even menacing. In those moments, Parker Finn’s debut effort does what great horror films should do, digging deep under our skin. It burrows into the neocortex, settling into our DNA, waiting days, weeks, or months for something seemingly mundane to trigger an otherwise inexplicable fear response. Despite getting a bit too distracted by its own ideas to follow through on its potential, Smile is nonetheless an effective directorial debut.
Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is an emergency psychiatrist with her own tortured past (sound familiar, horror fans?). At the tail-end of a marathon shift, she encounters a young PhD student convinced that she she’s seeing people – some she knows and others she doesn’t; some who are actually there and some who aren’t – smiling at her. Just…smiling. After dangling on the precipice of a breakdown, the student suddenly goes rigid, staring at Rose with a stilted, sharp, overbearing smile on her face. And she calmly slits her own throat.
The very act of witnessing a horrific tragedy – and the internalized trauma it wreaks upon the viewer – is the evil at the heart of Smile. Cribbing from David Robert Mitchell’s modern-day horror masterpiece It Follows, Finn crafts an invisible horror – neither corporeal nor truly supernatural – that infests and infects its victims, passing from one to the next like a virus. This is the genius of Smile.
The frustration lies in its haphazard execution. As Rose slowly realizes that she’s likely to be this unyielding killer’s next victim, Smile descends into a strange mix of tedious interpersonal drama and engaging – the ultimately monotonous – police procedural. Ultimately, Smile gets wrapped up in its own mythology. And in doing so, it forgets a cardinal genre rule: the more you explain what’s going on, the less scary it is.
Kyle Gallner does bring a coy yet simmering energy as Rose’s ex-boyfriend cop, and Rob Morgan goes for broke in his lone scene. But Smile is Sosie Bacon’s film. Her scintillating performance keeps the audience hooked as she digs deeper into her past trauma. Bacon continuously finds new ways to play what lesser actors would be forced to deliver through the same repeated note. She provides depth to an underwritten, almost talismanic character.
Despite some story shortcomings, Finn has plenty to offer as a visual stylist. Smile is composed well, relying on negative space in the frame to enhance Rose’s increasing sense of isolation. The film veers into a gruesome third act – one jaw-dropping sequence made several members of my audience laugh, though I can only assume that was to avoid shrieking. In one of the best years for horror in recent memory, Smile is one worth seeking out.