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The decade will be linked to trauma metaphors when the horror histories of the 2010s are written, just like the ’80s are linked to slasher films. And even though a new decade is about to begin, the recently released horror film “Smile” from Paramount fits perfectly in with its PTSD-related relatives. The monster is hardly a metaphor in this case because the demon, evil spirit, or whatever it is—the film is evasive on this point—literally feeds on and spreads through trauma.
In particular, the enigmatic force that follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) throughout the entire film “Smile” enjoys the taste of those who have seen another person commit gruesome, painful, bloody suicide—by garden shears, oncoming trains, or the broken shards of a ceramic vase in a hospital waiting room. Laura (Caitlin Stasey), a PhD student who is transported to the psychiatric emergency unit where Rose works, shivering and scared that someone is out to get her, is briefly introduced to Rose there. Laura claims that this entity has been stalking her ever since she saw one of her professors bludgeoning himself to death with a hammer four days ago. “It looks like people, but it’s not a person,” she says. Laura turns to Rose with a crazy grin on her face and begins to cut her own throat at the conclusion of the lengthy dialogue segment that introduces the movie.
Anyone would be uneasy about this, but Rose is particularly disturbed by it because Rose’s mother committed suicide many years prior. The most insightful thematic thread in the movie is related to this residual trauma and the shame and fears associated with it. In the movie, derogatory phrases like “nutjobs,” “crazies,” and “head cases” are used to describe people with mental illnesses. Rose’s fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) discloses that he has looked up inherited mental disease online. More than the idea of being cursed, Rose seems to be troubled by the thought that she might not be afflicted by the same creature that killed Laura and that her hallucinations, lost time, and emotional instability might have an internal source. Prior to it being far too late, Rose’s friends and family, including Trevor, her therapist Dr. Northcott (Robin Weigert), her boss Dr. Desai (Kal Penn), and her sister Holly (Gillian Zinzer), all appear to believe the issue is more neurochemical than supernatural.
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Only her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), a police officer working on Laura’s case, believes Rose. Their hesitant reunion ushers in the mystery aspect of the movie, which takes up the majority of “Smile’s” lengthy but not excessive 115-minute running time. The plot of the movie follows many of the standard rhythms of a supernatural horror-mystery, building from a quick Google (the modern equivalent of a good old-fashioned library scene) to a face-to-face interview with a traumatized, imprisoned survivor of whatever this evil monster is. A brief mention of a series of related occurrences in Brazil leaves room for a sequel.
The main strength of “Smile” is its unrelenting, suffocating grimness: in this movie, kids and animals are just as susceptible as grownups, and the gory parts are gory and upsetting to go along with the somber themes. Bacon’s unsteady, sensitive performance as Rose enhances this unsparing sensibility: She shouts, “I am not insane!” at Trevor at one point before mumbling an apology and feeling ashamedly looking down at her shoes. At another, her wan smile at her nephew’s birthday party serves as a somber contrast to the sick grin the entity’s victims see before they pass away (hence the movie’s title), as well as a relatable moment for viewers who have reluctantly struggled through similar gatherings while experiencing a depressive episode.
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Sadly, “Smile” is lessened by the simple reality that it’s not as original a notion as it might seem, despite a compelling lead and good artistry behind the camera—the color palette, in hues of lavender, pink, teal, and gray, is capably chosen and very of the moment. Based on a short film that won a jury prize at SXSW 2020, this is director Parker Finn’s first full-length work as both a writer and a director. It is a tremendous accomplishment, to be sure, to turn that into a non-franchise wide-release film from a major company like Paramount within two years—in a pandemic, no less!
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However, in order to stretch out the idea from an 11-minute short into a nearly two-hour film, “Smile” relies far too much on formulaic mystery structuring as well as on horror themes and images ripped off from blockbuster films like “The Ring” and “It Follows.” When combined with its position on the “it’s actually about trauma” continuum and David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 film’s influence, “Smile” is less of a bracing cinematic experience than it may have been had it broken the mold more adamantly. It does establish Finn as a competent horror director, one with a skill for a beautifully executed jump scare and a penchant for leaving a viewer feeling unsettled and upset—both benefits for a movie like this one. Fans who are anticipating the release of a “original” horror movie should lower their hopes.
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On September 23, this review was submitted following the film’s premiere at Fantastic Fest. On September 30, it debuts.
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