After witnessing a traumatic incident involving a patient, a therapist starts experiencing frightening occurrences she can't explain.
Parker Finn expanded his short film Laura Hasn’t Slept (2020) into one of 2022’s biggest sleeper hits, as the $17M-budgeted Smile grossed an incredible $216M at the worldwide box office. It’s an amazing achievement and adds further evidence that horror is the only genre that can eclipse superhero blockbusters from a value-for-money standpoint. I only wish I enjoyed the movie more.
Therapist Dr Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) has a tragic interaction with a graduate student called Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey) in her office, who is seemingly traumatised by witnessing the suicide of her art history professor a week earlier. Laura claims an entity is plaguing her and she knows the date of her own death, but before Rose can calm her down she watches in horror as Laura slits her own throat with a broken vase while staring fixedly at her with a chilling smile. Horrified by this ghoulish event, Rose seeks comfort from her fiance Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and professional help from supervisor Dr Morgan Desai (Kal Pen), particularly once she starts having hallucinations of strangers smiling unnervingly at her, and a prank involving a dead cat makes her appear crazy to her friends during a little boy’s birthday party.
Smile certainly isn’t a terrible film, but it’s a weaker version of the two better films it recycles core ideas from—Ringu (1998), with the central curse and a clock-ticking narrative to solve a supernatural mystery before your own fateful death, and It Follows (2014), in how the damned protagonist is harassed by various spectres throughout her investigation. Ringu’s scarier and has a richer mystery, while It Follows is better made and has more interesting rules and creepy moments. The disconcerting way someone smiles at you has its appeal as a horror visual (and I loved the marketing brainwave of Smile to have actors stand in the crowd at sports stadiums doing ‘the smile’ and having their expressions go viral), but it’s not all that frightening in the context of this story. And, frankly, the only person who perfects the thousand-year stare and lilting grin is Caitlin Stasey, who reprises her role of Laura from the short. When everyone else tries to mimic her look from the poster, it’s never as effective.
Sosie Bacon (13 Reasons Why) puts in a good performance as Rose and there’s strong support from Kyle Gallner (Dinner in America) as her ex-boyfriend and cop, but Smile can’t help feeling like what it is: a cool short film stretched to breaking point. (The best scene in Smile is, you guessed it, a restaging of the award-winning short.) There just wasn’t enough here to keep me interested once it became obvious Finn has expanded on the short by making an inferior version of It Follows, only with a ridiculous number of jump-scares. Of course, many teenagers haven’t yet seen The Ring and most people didn’t buy a ticket to see It Follows, so it’s no surprise Smile caught on with young audiences going to the cinema for a rare horror that isn’t streaming on Shudder. If this film introduced them to a few new horror tropes, that’s fantastic. Writer-director Parker Finn does a mostly solid job of repackaging things we’ve seen before into a decent story with some memorable moments—especially one involving a tall, lanky, skinless creature for the climax. The themes of trauma and suicide are also worth exploring in whatever new form, even if they form the basis of many other horror films.
Overall, Smile is mostly worth your time if you can’t get enough of horror films that tackle similar premises, but for connoisseurs it feels very derivative. I was mostly reminded of how excellent It Follows is because that film has more thought-provoking lore and a richer sense of atmosphere. Rosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin) gives a committed performance and director Parker Finn is certainly a talented filmmaker to keep an eye on, but I hope his next movie has a more original premise and he’s not stuck making Smile sequels because of its incredible success.
USA | 2022 | 115 MINUTES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
The high-definition image quality is about as good as one expects these days, with great clarity to environments and clothing. There’s good fidelity in darker scenes (although a bit of noise creeps in) and the colour is natural with deep blacks and accurate skin tones. The 4K Ultra HD disc will provide a better presentation for a host of reasons, but I doubt you’ll be disappointed by picking up this cheaper option instead.
Dolby Atmos is a welcome addition to this disc and creates a wonderful level of immersion, with some overhead effects and loud jolts for the jump-scares. The dialogue is anchored and clear, but every channel is used to some degree throughout the movie.
writer & director: Parker Finn.
starring: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Kal Penn & Rob Morgan.