Smile Review: Horror Film Thrills & Terrifies, But Falters When Exploring Trauma

A smile can have many meanings. It could be sardonic, kind, forced, and — in the case of Smile, the horror film written and directed by Parker Finn — downright terrifying. Based on Finn’s 2020 short Laura Hasn’t Slept, in which the protagonist refuses to sleep because of the smiling man she sees in her dreams, Smile takes that concept and expands on it, often to great effect. The horror film boasts a strong central performance and, even while its exploration of trauma and mental illness remain at surface-level, the jump-scares and intrigue are haunting enough to keep the story afloat.

Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a therapist who watches as one of her patients, who claims she’s seeing visions and is being haunted by a smiling entity that wears people’s faces like masks, die by suicide. The patient in question had, just four days prior, witnessed her professor die by suicide as well. After the incident, Rose starts seeing visions herself. Sometimes, the entity appears as people she knows; in other instances, it shows up as complete strangers. Rose’s mental health deteriorates and, though she begins to think she is cursed, no one — not even her friend (Kal Penn), sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), or therapist (Robin Weigert) — believes her. The more Rose sees the smile, the more she grows desperate, seeking out Joel (Kyle Gallner), her ex and police officer, for help in the hopes that she could find a way to stop the curse before it’s too late.

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Smile is one of the scariest mainstream horror films in recent memory. It brings audiences into its web of terror, leaving them on edge as they await for the next grisly image or jump-scare. To that end, the film’s jump-scares are magnificently staged, and sometimes unexpected as Finn tricks viewers into thinking things will be as they look. Since the entity haunting Rose can take many forms, these grim moments become more and more unsettling as the story goes on. The film goes for a lot of shots where the camera, focused perhaps on a vast, empty landscape, begins to tilt before fully righting itself in an upside down view. This works to enhance the uneasy, and quite stressful, moments as Rose’s downward spiral escalates. Amplified by the score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer and the eerie cinematography by Charlie Sarroff, the horror aspects masterfully come together.

Where Smile falters is in its examination of mental illness and mental health. Most of the characters, at some point or another, refer to Rose as a “headcase,” and even Rose’s sister and fiancé seem to want to distance themselves from her instead of helping her (or what they perceive as helping her). It siloes Rose, to be sure, which makes her ordeal all the more terrifying as she’s forced to face things alone. However, the film, in its attempts to offer commentary on mental health — and suicide especially, as it affects Rose, whose own mother died by suicide when she was ten — doesn’t have much to say. It offers a surface-level reading of trauma, in that it is a cycle that continues to the point that it takes over Rose’s life, affecting her relationships, work, and mental state. The finale suggests she must face it head-on, but Smile doesn’t delve any further than it has to in its exploration of Rose’s past trauma. By the time Rose realizes she’s never truly been happy, the horror film is reaching its end.

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Smile movie

That aside, Sosie Bacon gives a stunning performance as Rose. Bacon’s portrayal is believable, conveying Rose’s internal struggle, as well as her fear and anxiety through haunted looks and emotive eyes. As Rose’s mental health deteriorates, Bacon adjusts her body language to showcase the changes her character goes through — from put-together medical professional to a woman who is being psychologically taunted and retraumatized. Smile is already an overall enjoyable horror on its own, but it’s supremely elevated by Bacon’s performance, and viewers will no doubt find the film to be effective and terrifying.

Smile released in theaters Friday, September 30. The film is 115 minutes long and is rated R for strong violent content and grisly images, and language.

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