Most recent horror movies that are actually veiled metaphors for the lasting impact trauma can have on a person’s psyche don’t actually use the word “trauma” as much as Smile, the feature film debut from writer/director Parker Finn, who has sort of expanded his 2020 short film Laura Hasn’t Slept (both films features actor Caitlin Stasey as the character Laura Weaver, who is the film’s first victim). In Smile, we meet psychotherapist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, Mare of Easttown and the daughter of actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick), who works in the emergency ward of a psychiatric hospital. She grew up with a crazed, dangerous mother and has wanted to have a job where she can help the mentally ill.
One night, Laura comes into the hospital terrified that on that very day, she’s going to die. She’s convinced of it because ever since she saw a man commit suicide a few days earlier with a terrifying smile on his face, she’s been seeing threatening things that only she can see, with each one of these encounters becoming increasingly threatening. Then in the middle of this initial consult, Laura freaks out, breaks a vase, and uses a shard of it to slit her own throat, all while having a big smile on her face and looking directly at Rose. If anything, she’s slit herself in a way that looks like her smile is the size of her entire face. Smile does not hold back on either bloody gore or more disturbing images of death. Almost as soon as Rose witnesses this suicide, she begins to feel different. Her boss (Kal Penn) insists she take a few days off; her boyfriend Trevor (Jessie T. Usher, 2019’s Shaft) wants to be understanding but he is not capable or qualified to handle where Rose’s brain is taking her; and even her own therapist (Robin Weigert, Deadwood) fears that she may be following in her mother’s mental footsteps.
What we spend a great deal of the film attempting to figure out is whether whatever has been passed on to Rose is making worse a problem in her mind that is already there or if this is a truly evil force that will likely make her dead in under a week. As much as Smile is a well-conceived and -crafted horror film, it’s also about a woman to whom no one is listening. She is experiencing an active, ongoing trauma, and no one will believe or even acknowledge something is genuinely wrong with her beyond simply thinking she’s insane. But the movie also wants to scare and shock us, and it does a pretty decent job of that as well. Never having seen Bacon in a major acting role before, I was wildly impressed with her performance here, attempting to keep a brave face as much as she can while also seeing things that most people should never have to see, things meant to cause her additional agony and anxiety.
Rose investigates the history of this “curse” and enlists the help of police officer ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner in a fairly thankless role), whose access to case files is useful until he pays a hefty price for still being hung up on his former flame. In the end, Rose has to come face to face with her childhood fears in order to even feasibly defeat whatever it is that has her number, and like many horror films, the ending is a little sketchy and perhaps dances around a satisfying ending without quite getting there. Still, with a steady hand as director, an idea that we’ve seen versions of before (The Ring, It Follows) and a terrific cast, Smile made an impression on me (and a good one at that), and it’s got me excited about what comes next from both director Finn and lead actor Bacon.
The film is now playing theatrically.
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