[Movie Review] SMILE

[Movie Review] SMILE
SMILE l Paramount Pictures
Parker Finn’s short film Laura Hasn’t Slept was phenomenal (as was his previous horror short, The Hidebehind). Making great use of its time, it blurred reality and nightmare together to create a pure feeling of uneasy and steady tension. It is in this short we see the inspiration for his debut feature, SMILE. In the short, Laura (Caitlin Stasey) confides to her therapist that she can’t sleep. When she does, all she sees is a smiling figure that – ultimately – drives her to madness.

While Laura Hasn’t Slept works well, expanding the ideas present into a feature-length film highlights areas Finn needs to work on in his writing. His execution of jump scares that spike our adrenaline is still strong and, arguably, one of the highlights of SMILE. However, with a story that drags and hits every clichéd box surrounding a film focusing on curses, there is little that surprises. Even the scares, while well-done, are easy to pinpoint.

What ultimately sours the film is in Finn’s reliance on mental illness and everything it encompasses as a provocative gimmick. Some ideas presented show potential for expansion. The potential is never quite realized, unfortunately. Instead, what we see, despite the performance delivered by Sosie Bacon as Dr. Rose Cotter, is a surface-level exploration of mental illness and trauma culminating in a final act that ironically and unintentionally spits in the face of Rose’s profession. It’s here that I’ll state if you struggle with suicidal thoughts, skip this film.

[Movie Review] SMILE
Sosie Bacon and Jack Sochet star in SMILE

What happens?

SMILE primarily focuses on Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who works in an emergency room psychiatric ward. Clocking in extraordinarily long hours, she’s in need of a good week’s sleep. Just as she’s about to leave to go home, she heeds a phone call that she’ll long regret. A 5150 patient is in, and she needs to address it. Unfortunately, this patient isn’t going to be an ordinary case.

The patient (a returning Caitlin Stasey) witnessed the brutal suicide of her professor a week prior. Since then, she’s been followed by some sort of thing. It manifests itself as people she knows, strangers, and even her deceased grandfather. After providing this exposition, it culminates into a breakdown before Rose’s eyes. Then all of a sudden, the patient is staring at her, smiling the creepiest smile before killing herself in front of Rose.

This act sparks a reign of terror for Rose. It starts off slowly at first when she sees a smiling figure in the shadows of her home. But it’s not long before things escalate. What she has long since dismissed as some form of PTSD from the incident quickly becomes clear that it is something more. Now, she must try to find the answers in time to save herself and prevent more people from getting hurt in the process. Whether or not she succeeds is another story.

Robin Weigert in SMILE

Turn that frown upside down

In horror, the most common question asked is, “Is it scary?” Measuring SMILE on a physiological level, it succeeds in the scares. Finn’s experiences on both of his shorts serve him well here as both involve pop-out scares and big reveals crafted for maximum heart palpitations. You’ll be glancing at every corner and every shadow long after viewing, which is a testament to the quality of the jump scares that Finn utilizes.

Keeping the audience hooked is the character Dr. Rose Cotter. Any major character development that Finn wrote into the script went to her and for good reason. A person who went into the psychiatric profession likely as a result of her own trauma, her knowledge serves as both a blessing and curse. Sosie Bacon’s performance is layered and holds onto you despite the script’s underdevelopment of her trauma journey. It’s really the strength of Bacon’s performance that salvages the ending and gives that gut punch that the script itself failed to deliver.

As a scene partner, Kyle Gallner’s exposition-wielding cop does far more than expected. The role feels lived in and natural. While really only existing to fill the audience in and guide the plot along during info-dumps, Gallner is so likable that he elevates the role beyond what was likely intended. It’s his likability as well that also ends up again making the ending stronger than written.

Regarding the ending, Finn makes a dramatically strong writing decision that will haunt audiences. That said, it isn’t for everyone.

Sosie Bacon stars in SMILE

Mental illness as cannon fodder

The writing is ultimately what turns SMILE’s impact into a frown.

While it’s a hefty task to tackle mental illness as subject matter, it’s clear while watching it that it’s an accessory here or used as shock value. There’s no deeper meaning and, in the quest of Rose trying to find answers and – ultimately – salvation, the mental illness component of the plot gets lost until it’s resurrected again for the convenience of the final act. I hate to apply this term here, but this is why the ending can be problematic. It is impactful, but it is also harmful when you take into account the entirety of SMILE.

There are also general issues with pacing and exposition that drag SMILE out longer than it needs to be. It’s a challenge to expand a short film or story into a longer work. In trying to stretch it out, plot points are reminiscent of several popular curse-related films. It Follows and The Ring comes to mind in terms of transmission and timeline of said curse. It makes it all the easier to jump ahead to where we think the plot will go. The jump scares and downward spiral of Rose helps to provide some excitement in the middle but, for the most part, it’s formulaic and forgettable.

Rose is the tie that keeps things falling apart. Those around her, though, are frankly one note. For those who aren’t strong actors, the lack of development becomes painfully obvious. That’s enough said there.

Sosie Bacon stars in SMILE

Final thoughts

Charlie Sarroff’s camerawork here is well-done. The usage of wide-pan shots helps to build up the scares and tension. A complaint, though, is the overuse of the tilting 180-degree camera shot. While it is cool the first or second time used, it came across as gratuitous as SMILE progressed. The sound design does some heavy lifting for the set-up of scares, so the team should be commended for that.

SMILE isn’t subtle with its overarching theme – trauma. In a sea of horror films focusing on trauma, Parker Finn’s attempt to explore it is left muddied. There’s no clear direction in terms of what it is he’s trying to get at on the subject. But, for some viewers, that’s not the draw. If we’re going based on adrenaline-inducing scares? SMILE succeeds. An ending that lingers on the brain days later? SMILE also succeeds. I’ve discussed the ending with several others who have watched it, so it is impactful. If that’s all Finn was going for, then the job was done.

That said, I can’t advise enough that if you are struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts, SMILE is a film best skipped until you feel like you’re ready.

As a head’s up, for those sensitive to strobes and flashing images, the second title sequence heavily features quick flashes. Trigger warnings for this film are ableism, animal death, mental illness, murder, and suicide.

SMILE hits theaters on September 30, 2022.

All images courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Sarah Musnicky
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