Fantastic Fest 2022 Review: SMILE Opens Wide
Writer/director Parker Finn had me asking one question prior to my viewing of Smile: Would the film simply coast on a creepy visual gimmick or, like It Follows (2016), take that idea and do something genuinely unnerving with it?
Things revealed in the trailer left me on the fence. It's a good trailer. It builds well and tells you just enough. But some of what it told me was dangerously familiar. A character says that she's seeing something no one else can see. A well used trope. Fair enough.
Another character tells the protagonist that she's going to die. Okay. I've seen that a lot.
Finally we see a group of photos laid out on a table. Someone who seems to be assisting the protagonist in getting at the heart of the mystery tells her that no one who has seen it has lived more than a week, the primary trope of Ring (1998). Still, the trailer is plenty effective and even has a nice kicker at the end.
So, what's the verdict? Smile has a lot of undeniably creepy moments. The titular smiles flashed in the film just before moments of body trauma are augmented by a narrative flow that continually dislocates the viewer without losing the forward momentum of the story.
Top that off with a great practical effects monster and an unrelentingly dark vision and Smile is a film I would have no problem watching again, alone or with friends or thinking and writing about at length. Your mileage may vary depending on how many horror films you've seen but for this horror veteran I left the theater... smiling.
The story centers on Dr. Rose Cotter as a successful psychiatrist working in an emergency admit clinic. She has a handsome husband, a fantastic house and a deep sense of compassion for the deeply disturbed people she works with. But as the film moves in closer we notice she has a hard time leaving her work at the office.
Her handsome husband is not so perfect as appearances would suggest, and her sister dismisses her work, wondering why she doesn't take a more well paying job. Rose' answer is to smile the smile of denial. But when a terrified young woman is admitted to the clinic claiming to see something no one else can see, something that smiles, Rose must confront all these things and more.
Smile uses the unprocessed trauma of its characters towards dark ends and some will argue it's just too heavy-handed. They might be missing the point.
Rose is surrounded by people who question her life choices and feelings. The police use dismissive terms like crazy, psycho and nuts to describe a deceased mental patient. Her husband won't believe what's happening to her. Her sister refuses to face the family history contributing to Rose' breakdown. Most of all, the monstrous entity haunting her makes this all but impossible.
This is precisely what a nervous breakdown can feel like, a constant reaching out in the midst of crisis only to find no hand to hold. Depression, anxiety, and panic are like monsters no one else can or want to see.
I haven't talked about the performances here. Sosie Bacon is excellent as Rose, keeping the character empathetic as she becomes more and more distressed. But the actors all acquit themselves well.
Likewise the look and tone of the film. These are not the film's problem or even its biggest asset. The main problem with the film seems to be the script, which only provides its characters with horror movie things to do. They're well motivated but any fan could tick them off a list and probably will while watching. Still, those beats are hit hard and there are one or two jump scares that are good enough to send you out of your seat.
Special effects here look great but are occasionally used a little too freely. In one instance Rose looks into a darkened corner and the audience can clearly see a figure that would send any sensible person running from the room whereas she just stares. It's a minor nitpick in any case. Smile is unrelentingly creepy and features a monster that is the horrific embodiment of the film's theme.
Smile is at its most powerful when aspects of it whisper a central truth to the audience: some things cannot be recovered from. In an age of anxiety, depression and occasional terror, it seems needful to me to admit that.
There are no memes, no perfect friends or loved ones, that can erase the worst that can happen to a human being in their lifetime. However we learn to cope amidst our deepest fears and worst memories, we are lost without one another.
The film is now playing in movie theaters nationwide.