In terms of using trauma and grief as a metaphorical horror conceit, “Smile” is so on-the-nose as to make “The Babadook” feel like James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” To make that introduction a bit less pompously up-its-own-ass and cinematically self-referential: “Smile” feels like listening to someone shout the “hidden meaning” of a knock-knock joke. “YOU GET IT? BECAUSE YOU THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO SAY BANANA AGAIN! BUT I SAID ORANGE, WHICH IS A DIFFERENT KIND OF FRUIT!”
What “It Follows” did for STDs, writer/director Parker Finn tries to do for suicide. The only problems with this approach are that (1) “It Follows” is bad, and (2) suicide is an even worse condition to get cheeky with. It’s fine to not have a message and just be a scary movie. But you probably shouldn’t symbolically leverage arguably the most detrimental mental health consequence for spooky goofs in a way that implicitly suggests that sharing details of trauma “spreads evil.”
Rose (Sosie Bacon) works in an emergency psychiatric unit, a job more impossibly challenging and difficult than anyone who has billions of dollars has ever done a day in their life. A patient dies by suicide in front of Rose, claiming to have seen a smiling entity that “wears the faces of other people.” That patient had herself witnessed a suicide. As you can guess from the trailers and this brief recap, it’s a classic “chain letter” or “forward this email or else” scenario. As with “The Ring,” Rose is gonna off herself in less than a week, passing the invisible smiler onto whoever sees her do it.
“Smile” moves slowly through this slender synopsis. It has a few good shock-and-“aw hell no” moments, many of which blissfully fall into the “painfully uncomfortable but not a jump scare” category. It is so much more unsettling to just see a creature quietly hanging out in the periphery of a scene than to cue their entrance with an orchestral shriek. As fun as those punctuations of peril are, it’s hard not to just want Rose (and the movie around her) to move things along.
Weirdly, “Smile” has both a great climax and a wildly unsatisfying final act. Not only does it inarticulately and inadvertently argue that the most noble thing a suicidal person can do is end things quietly, it shortchanges Rose’s catharsis. Does it do so with a wickedly disturbing monster encounter? Oh, yes. Thus, there are definitely worse recent resolutions to worry about, darling.
Bacon is remarkably good here. Maybe not so good as to obscure the fact that her parents are Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. Can the next horror movie use a metaphor about how the only people who get to make art are the spawns of wealthy artists? This isn’t new, but checking filmographies on Wikipedia and IMDB feels more like surfing Ancestry.com these days.
Were it just a stack of cheesy cliches wearing a trench coat and yelling “Boo,” “Smile” would be harmless, unoriginal Halloween fun. On the flippity flop, if it had been smarter, it could have successfully made a point about how all these profitable horror movies that traffic in trauma probably do some incidental damage to the real people they’re fictionally depicting. Instead, it only almost gets a passing grade based on some A+ frights and B- B-movie supporting characters. Not enough to offset the F- for lazy immorality.
Grade = C-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Darkskylady at Darkskylady Reviews says “Though useful as a film for a drinking game, ‘Smile’ delivers yawns, not terror, except if you love jump scares. The use of mental health is also an issue. There is no regard or care, no purpose beyond common horror props.”
Rendy Jones at Rendy Reviews says “Throughout ‘Smile,’ Sosie Bacon is haunted by an entity that makes her hear voices. I, too, was hearing a voice: it was Jamie Lee Curtis saying, ‘It’s about trauma.’”
Megan Navarro at Bloody Disgusting says “There’s a familiarity to the curse’s nature and formula, drawing easy comparisons to several beloved horror films. Even still, it’s well-crafted and introduces a fresh feeling mythology, with some genuine scares along the way.”