‘Smile’ will make you grin and grimace

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By Ryan Yau, Staff Writer

This article contains spoilers.

Parker Finn’s feature directorial debut “Smile” is a genre relic. In the post-streaming, post-COVID era of cinema, audiences are excited for high-tempo horror in a way they haven’t been since the 2000s. Seats were packed in the Boston Common AMC on opening night, and the movie earned $22 million at the Box Office over the weekend.

The film opens on a therapy session between a woman and her doctor. The woman says she is being followed by a demon who assumes the forms of those she knows, and has been telling her when she is going to die: today. The demon’s tell is an uncanny, inhuman smile.

The woman then flashes an uncanny, inhuman smile, and dies as foretold. Our protagonist, Dr. Rose Cotter—played by Sosie Bacon—is naturally shaken by the events, but soon learns that she has been cursed with the same affliction and is merely the next in a long lineage of suicides.

“Smile” sets up the perfect amalgam horror premise, combining every classic genre fear: being stuck in a waking nightmare, being aware of your own death, being a victim out of fortuity, and not knowing who to trust, even yourself. In this way, it’s not entirely unique—even its central eerie smile motif is a trope of late-2010s horror, notorious for looking overly goofy.

The demon is a somewhat banal metaphor for trauma, the idea being that witnessing suicide passes on the demon from one victim to another. But the metaphor is a horror cliché of the past 10 years, and no less uninteresting in this context. Concurrently Cotter is revealed to hold her own trauma of having to take care of her dying mother as a young girl, from whom she received significant abuse.

Bacon’s performance is the glue holding the movie together, perfectly portraying the progression from skepticism to mania without hamming it up. Supporting roles from Jessie T. Usher as her fiancé and Caitlyn Stasey as her sister provide outside perspectives, allowing for ambiguity on whether what we see happening is real.

Following the initial encounter in therapy, the film revolves around Cotter struggling to decipher the events and come to terms with the seeming insurmountability of avoiding the curse. However, the sequence of revelations presented are telegraphed so obviously they become obnoxious, to the point that no significant narrative shift holds any shock value.

One scene that takes place at her nephew’s birthday party is a prime example. In a night of delirium, Cotter loses her cat. The movie then suddenly cuts to the party without transition, and she shows up with an inexplicable present. It doesn’t take much effort to piece together what is happening, but the camera frustratingly draws out every reaction as to hammer the revelation as hard as possible. 

Even after a well-acted scene in which a child pulls a dead cat from a box, the movie feels the need to close-up on its name tag, unhelpfully attributing the corpse to the name of a cat we already knew to be missing.

What saves the movie is an earnest dedication to subversion. Finn is familiar with the language of modern-day horror and weaponizes it to scare the audience.

Every single ominous camera technique is employed. Is the demon at the edge of this slow pan? Behind this close-up of the protagonist? At the end of this tight hallway? Usually, the answer is no. A favorite gag of Finn’s is to establish the elements of a scare, fizzle out, then jolt the audience with a loud noise through an unrelated, comically mundane cut.

One notable sequence of shots sets up three separate scares by sweeping across a bedroom with far too many corridors—of course, none of which come into play, but it’s these setup-and-baits that bolster the real scares in the final leg of the film.

Cotter realizes she has to end the cycle by killing herself in a way that leaves no witnesses. So, she poetically travels to her childhood home, the source of her non-demonic trauma. However, it is there that she encounters the demon in the form of her dead mother, begging her to help. She’s swayed, but ultimately chooses to prioritize her mental health over her desire to help others.

But that’s only the beginning of what must be the wildest, most elliptical dream-sequence ending of the year. Her mother morphs into a tall, deformed monster and we get a hide-and-seek sequence around the suddenly labyrinthine house. The demon approaches Cotter, inexplicably becomes an H.R. Giger creation, and tries to enter her mouth in the most gruesome possible depiction of repression. She resists and sets trauma incarnate on fire, taking it and the house down with her.

What “Smile” needs more of is this brand of audacity, to do away with the self-seriousness of its albeit serious premise and to lean more into its absurdity. While the formal presentation of the film is strong and its story progression, though predictable, is solid, there were many moments that felt too safe despite the potential of its setup. But for those seeking a played-straight carnival of frights, it well delivers.