Smile is an obnoxious attempt at subverting trauma horror, sunk not only by its own smug conceit but also its failure to capitalize on its unique visual potential.
There’s no denying the success of Smile’s viral marketing campaign — wherein plants were placed in camera-friendly locations at various MLB games, faces perpetually fixed with creepy grins — both aesthetically and fiscally (early box office returns have been stellar). Nor can it be ignored that Smile is earning enthusiastic praise from a critical body typically disinclined toward this particular vein of horror, championing it as a smart and savvy recalibration of the recent trend of trauma-centric horror cinema. This confluence marks a moment in what’s been a so-far underwhelming late-summer/early-autumn cinematic landscape, but it’s all mirage. Smile’s marketing was considerably more impressive than the final product it was pitching to moviegoers, and one can only assume the critical grace the film has been afforded is more reflective of a dud couple of months at megaplexes where mainstream dead ducks like Bullet Train, The Invitation, and Don’t Worry Darling came and went with whimpers while other weekends’ wide releases included the likes of Fall, Easter Sunday, and Mack & Rita.
Which is to say that the lay and critical communities alike have been thirsty for a film of personality for an incredibly dry couple of months, and Smile superficially offers that in spades. Indeed, it’s surprising it took this long for the horror genre to fully center the creepy smile as conceit rather than mere textural detail. Parker Finn’s feature directorial debut follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), an overworked and underpaid hospital psychiatrist whose already fragile emotional equilibrium — cooked into her psyche as a child following her abusive and mentally ill mother’s death by overdose — is obliterated after she witnesses a young Ph.D. candidate brutally kill herself by slashing her own throat, all while wearing a disturbing painted-on grin, of course. Will she be next?
From here, Smile takes the shape of an It Follows and The Ring mash-up — noted endlessly elsewhere, so obviously derivate is the concept — wherein Rose begins to quickly deteriorate while trying to understand her affliction before it’s too late (though the timeline is hilariously unspecific, somewhere between 4 and 7 days, as if this is some kind of meaningful subversion of template). It’s roughly explained via some cobbled-together exposition plucked from various scenes that whatever this affliction is jumps from Party A to Party B after Party B watches Party A commit suicide (or whatever it is that is controlling Party A). But the “symptoms” bear very little internal logic: sometimes Rose sees smiling reflections in shiny surfaces; sometimes she hears her dead mother from her closet; sometimes a person she’s interacting with will suddenly have that creepy smile; sometimes she hallucinates nightmarish interactions all together; and sometimes terrible things happen off-screen, ostensibly by this “entity,” which most but not all evidence points to being an external, autonomous force, without Rose’s knowledge. There’s also an ex-boyfriend detective (Kyle Gallner) who helps move the film into procedural territory for a hot second, which accomplishes little other than adding the unfortunate FearDotCom to the list of films this recalls.
So yes, Smile is an utterly nonsensical mess that fails to establish any rules to even try to play by. But as we all know, that’s hardly a deal-breaker for horror cinema, particularly if a film nails its genre and aesthetic elements. In this regard, Smile may be even worse. Finn doesn’t seem to know how to orchestrate any horror moment beyond the jump scare, which he delivers fast and furiously across the film’s interminable two-hour runtime, few of which demonstrate any imagination or nuance — foregoing a scene’s first opportunity to hit viewers with a jump scare isn’t a novel or effective tack, especially when repeated again and again, and the substance of these scares amounts to loud noise-plus-creepy face. In fact, there are more instances of jump scares sardined into Smile than there are actual eerie leers, which absolutely should have been the film’s bread and butter — it pains one to consider how effective a film beset with discomfiting Cheshire grins populating the frames could have been had Finn not sold out to empty amygdala bating. And while it’s no secret that horror film characters are rarely Einsteins, those found in Smile are particular imbeciles: Rose spends most of the film’s bloated runtime going around explaining her situation as imprecisely as possible and acting baffled that no one believes her, while her fiance at one point notes, with pride, that he looked up if mental illness had a genetic component. (I won’t spoil his research results here.)
Still, despite leaning into more visceral horror territory — if executed both obnoxiously and abysmally — Smile is still just another entry into the horror-trauma trend. There’s little doubt Finn regards his film as a subversion of this — or perhaps just a cynically winking send-up — as the word “trauma” is spoken out loud endlessly throughout the therapy-centric film, even to the point of having one character explicitly announce its integral nature to the pattern (you need a witness to the suicides). This admittedly opens up an interesting narrative cheat code later on for Rose, but that is quickly disposed of so that she can instead head back to her childhood home and wage a final war with metaphor. That the big bad of this climax looks like Gene Simmons by way of Gumby, stretched to ceiling height, makes for an unintentional howler of an ending, but it’s but a blip of pleasure after an overlong and self-serious slog. What Finn ultimately delivers is the film version of “hurt people hurt people,” only dunked in some knowing and annoying irony. There’s likely an interesting movie to be made about the chasm between the smiles we wear and the trauma we bear, but Smile has no interest in mining such territory, content to de-elevate contemporaneous horror tropes and deliver lowest common denominator scares. The only smile this critic mustered came at the sight of the long-awaited credits crawl.