Grin and Bear It
Director Parker Finn takes an impressive dive into the horror genre with his frightening debut film “Smile.”
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Everywhere you look, you’re greeted by a huge smile that stretches from cheek to cheek. It’s inescapable—that toothy smile permeates every aspect of your life. While this scenario may not seem so horrible at first, director Parker Finn transforms it into a nightmarish reality in his feature horror film “Smile.”
“Smile” debuted in theaters on September 30, just in time for the Halloween season. The movie follows a troubled young woman named Rose (Sosie Bacon), who works as a psychiatrist in a hospital ER. One day, Ph.D. student Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey) is admitted to the hospital, claiming that she has been haunted by a menacing, grinning entity ever since witnessing her professor’s suicide. Rose attempts to convince Laura that the entity is not real, but Laura becomes hysterical, subsequently breaking into a jarringly large smile and committing suicide in front of Rose—and, as the plot later reveals, passing the terrifying curse onto her. The rest of the film chronicles Rose’s attempts to free herself from the cycle as the demonic entity plagues her with warnings of her impending death while masquerading as Rose’s loved ones.
“Smile” is evidently not for the faint of heart. On top of the gore and death that horror movies often contain, the film also embraces the psychological side of the genre, dealing with triggering content such as childhood trauma, drug addiction, gaslighting. However, the film leans so deeply into its psychological horror aspect that it neglects the shock factor that is essential to any horror film. As the movie progresses, the plot becomes increasingly predictable due to its heavy reliance on jump scares to frighten the audience. This isn’t to say that the movie isn’t scary—the jump scares, emphasized by tilted camera angles and skillful practical effects, are smart and effective, leaving viewers shivering long after they leave the theater. One viral scene from the movie’s trailer captures a woman’s neck going limp, her head dropping behind her back as she grins eerily in a frightening act of contortion.
While the grimacing smiles that the malevolent demon dons are certainly unsettling, they don’t compensate for the slow and unoriginal story. There’s no culminating plot twist and the majority of the suspense does not come from anticipating a great climax, but rather from awaiting the next jump scare. In addition, “Smile” draws precariously close to other cyclical curse horror movies. Finn’s film is particularly reminiscent of David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” (2014), in which a very similar curse is passed down through sexual encounters rather than suicides. While the film ultimately leaves the audience thoroughly terrified, it also has them craving more.
Nonetheless, despite being Finn’s first full length film, “Smile” is remarkably well-executed in terms of acting and cinematography. Bacon delivers a raw and compelling performance as Rose, giving her character a striking dimensionality that allows viewers to sympathize with her as she struggles with the malignant entity. She conveys Rose’s growing instability in a way that feels natural; at one point, she explodes at her boyfriend, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), screaming “I’m not crazy!” before shakily dropping her gaze and mumbling an apology. Bacon’s acting and microexpressions makes it easy to forget that Rose is just a character. Kyle Gallner, who plays Rose’s concerned ex-boyfriend, also gives a notable performance, thanks to his charisma and chemistry with Bacon.
Behind the camera, Finn worked with cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, who demonstrated his artistry by tinting the entire movie in shades of gray, lavender, and pink to create a distinct grimness without overdoing it. This unexpected color palette does surprisingly well in maintaining a sense of dread throughout the film. The lavenders and pinks eventually fade as the film nears Rose’s final encounter with the entity, effectively intensifying “Smile”’s conclusion.
The movie also boasts an especially chilling sound design, with actors' voices growing closer at certain points of the movie, accentuating “Smile”’s sinister scariness. Finn also emphasizes breathing by highlighting Rose’s ragged, fearful inhales throughout the film, forcing viewers to experience Rose’s paralyzing fear alongside her. A delightfully haunting score composed by Cristobal Tapia de Veer elevates the movie’s suspense. Tapia de Veer utilizes slow, scratchy string instruments, which crescendo at key moments in the film, successfully sending goosebumps down viewers’ arms.
While this is all impressive for a debut film, perhaps what is most impressive is “Smile”’s high viewer turnout in its first week, thanks to Finn’s unique advertising method. Fans of major league baseball may have noticed Finn’s stunt marketing, in which he placed eerily grinning actors wearing “Smile” merchandise around stadiums. Audiences who expected “Smile” to retain the same creepiness as advertised were not disappointed, but the film’s plot doesn’t quite measure up to the standard of creativity set by Finn’s advertising.
However, what sets“Smile” apart from other horror films of its kind is its clever exploration of society and trauma. The horrific smiles strewn throughout the film are so petrifying because of the dichotomy between the characters’ psychological pain and their grins, which are evocative of joy. “Smile” serves as a metaphor for people’s troubling tendency to mask their agony behind a smile, dismissing personal problems for a facade of composure. Finn delves into the consequences of this behavior and pushes it to its most disturbing limits. Near the end of the movie, Rose returns to her abandoned childhood home, the source of her own trauma, where she encounters the demon in its strongest form. This scene serves as a lesson of the importance of not ignoring the root of trauma, for one cannot effectively solve an issue without considering how it began.
“Smile” is a sharp and unnerving film that doesn’t fully live up to its potential, but manages to go above and beyond with its startling jumpscares, production, and message. Though it is predictable and lacks originality, the movie ultimately leaves the audience second-guessing the next smile that comes their way.