Parker Finn’s Smile isn’t about twists; it’s not about body count; it’s not about jump scares. It’s about unsettling imagery and the fine line between sanity and insanity that we face – that is what makes it scary as hell. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a therapist working in the trauma ward of a local hospital, a clear attempt to relieve some of her childhood trauma of having found her mother’s body after she committed suicide when Rose was just 10 years old. Her older sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser), is self-absorbed and seems to have completely forgotten their traumatic childhood. Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), Rose’s fiancé, seems perfect (so you know that will fall apart).
One day at work, Rose sees a young woman, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who seems to be in the middle of a psychotic episode. She claims to be seeing people – some she knows, some she doesn’t, but always ones only she can see – and they are smiling. Big, unsettling grins. She insists she isn’t crazy, but she believes she is going to die. Suddenly, Laura collapses in pain, and Rose turns to call for help. When she returns to Laura, Laura is standing, a large, unsettling smile plastered on her face. She silently slices her neck open with a broken piece of pottery and drops dead to the floor. Rose is unsettled by this, as anyone would be. But it is only a few hours before she starts seeing things that Laura was describing. It’s just shadows at first, in the corners, stuff that Rose chalks up to her trauma and imagination. But things get worse. She begins seeing people with smiles; hearing things; things happening that she doesn’t remember. It is only a couple of days before Rose is a complete mess.
I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that Smile is a curse that must be passed on, much like The Ring. It’s pretty obvious from the opening scene. The entire track of the movie is pretty obvious. There are no surprises to be had. Likewise, there are no jump scares. You aren’t going to scream out loud at this movie. But it is unnerving. The most unnerving part is the smiles. These are not some crazy, prosthetic, Joker-esque smiles. These are regular, human smiles, maybe stretched up just a bit more at the corners, maybe just pulled down a touch at the lower lip – but they are human smiles. You’ve seen the trailers; you know how upsetting the smiles are. And that is where the fear comes from. You never know who will wear one, or where you will see one.
The smile thing, surprisingly enough, is not overused. There are other creepy things that the “curse” uses to scare Rose (and the audience). I won’t spoil those, but they are effective. Ironically, the third-act finale held the least-effective scares for me. There also isn’t a tremendous body count, nor is there a ton of gore. Honestly, this movie gets its R rating from the general creepy vibe of it all. Another simple thing that wasn’t overused, yet was surprisingly effective, was inverted camera angles. This was just used a couple of times, mostly on establishing shots; taking something so simple and changing it ever-so-slightly to make it feel a little bit off-center – like the smiles.
This film has a lot to say about mental health, and frankly, I’m not sure exactly what it is trying to say. There is a lot to unpack about trauma, PTSD, and mental disorders, and I am sure that everyone will take from it different things depending on their personal histories. A couple of friends of mine mentioned that they thought it could have used “trigger warnings.” As someone who has constantly worried about her own grasp on sanity, I could relate to Rose’s struggle.
The acting was fine across the board. Sosie Bacon really nailed the “losing her tenuous grip on reality” part. All the other characters were merely bit players compared to her. This is Rose’s story and Bacon really commands the screen. Smile holds no surprises. No big twists. You know what you are getting going into this movie. It is predictable from the first minute. But it is an enjoyable, scary ride that is well-plotted and acted. You will know how it ends within the first five minutes of the film. But the ride getting there is well worth it.