Parker Finn’s disturbing debut Smile transforms a congenial gesture into a threat. Smiles — warm and inviting by nature — mask deeper, more troubling intentions in this harrowing film about a demonic spirit that latches on to its victims’ traumas. The adage about grinning through hard times here takes on a sinister tone.
Dr. Rose Cutter (Sosie Bacon), an affable clinical psychiatrist, doesn’t know any of this when she meets Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), a graduate student who recently witnessed a gruesome suicide. The two convene in an examination room of the oddly homey ER psychiatric wing. (The hallway walls are painted a bubble-gum pink; the exam room has blue and yellow accents.) When they sit down to speak, Laura hurriedly recounts how her professor bludgeoned himself to death in front of her, the haunting smiles she sees on the faces of strangers and loved ones, the sinking feeling that she is going to die soon.
The Bottom Line
A disturbing experience.
Rose supplies understanding nods in response to this information, but it’s clear to Laura that the doctor isn’t listening. She’s forming a diagnosis, searching for professional language to rationalize her new patient’s palpable fear. Suddenly, Laura is muted by an unseen entity. The frenzied atmosphere conjured by the young woman’s pleas gives way to a disturbing silence. Laura grabs a shard of a broken ceramic vase and slices her flesh open. The camera (the DP is Charlie Sarroff) doesn’t flinch in the face of this suicide, which is soundtracked by Rose’s blood-curdling screams; it moves in, steadily meditating on the lacerated skin.
Smile is filled with grim scenes like this one, unnerving sequences that lodge themselves into your psyche as you follow Rose’s panicked, and sometimes labored, adventure. The film, which works in the same supernatural and psychic traditions as The Ring, relishes in fashioning frightening kills and setting a menacing mood. Lester Cohen’s production design, marked by a calculated austerity, builds serene scenes just waiting to be disturbed. Meanwhile, Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score creeps throughout the narrative, adding depth to already ghastly corporeal sounds — teeth gnawing on nails, labored breathing, bones breaking.
When Rose begins experiencing the same hallucinations as Laura, she chalks it up to exhaustion and past trauma. She has always been good at compartmentalizing her life, relegating painful memories to the back of her mind. But the more she sees the angular smile (the one plastered all over the film’s promotional materials), the harder it becomes to ignore what’s happening to her.
Finn and Sarroff portray Rose’s heightened mental state and increasing insecurity with a whimsical visual language. Upside-down shots, quick flashes that translate as tricks of the eye and a predilection for close-ups firmly place us in Rose’s perspective. The film never lets up on the anxiety, using the stomach-churning, heart-racing feeling of an anxious spiral to sustain viewers.
Smile‘s screenplay, which Finn wrote, confidently sketches Rose, but doesn’t demonstrate the same assurance when it comes to other characters like her fiancé, Trevor (Jesse T. Usher). The gallery of supporting figures struggles to shake off its utilitarian impression. Then there’s the reliance on pop psychology — lines that feel culled directly from a social media post diagnosing banal habits as trauma responses — that make the scenes between Rose and her patients or Rose and her own therapist (Robin Weigert) feel unbelievable.
Some of these contrivances can be ignored as Rose grows increasingly desperate. Bacon deftly transforms the character before our eyes: The once poised and coolheaded doctor unravels as the gravity of her situation dawns on her. She tries to explain her experience to Trevor and her sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser), and attempts to get a prescription for anxiety medication from her therapist, who feeds her platitudes about the nature of trauma.
The only person Rose realizes she can confide in is her ex-boyfriend, Joel (Kyle Gallner), a police officer who also happens to be the only person she ever felt vulnerable with. The duo tag team an ad hoc investigation into the reason for these visions, trying to figure out if anyone ever survived being possessed by this vague, trauma-feeding spirit. Their journey makes up most of the second act, which sags and slackens an otherwise taut story.
For all its wandering in predictable territory, Smile could easily have been consigned to the mounting pile of contemporary work exploring trauma; clichés about hurt people hurting others and healing one’s inner child do at times claw their way to center stage here. But the movie also teases a far more interesting truth about the lengths people will go to in order to distance themselves from mental disorders or perceived instability.
Rose, just like Laura before her, insists that she isn’t crazy. She rejects the loaded term, which, along with its metonyms, gets thrown around a number of times. But when she tries to confide in her loved ones, they avoid her reality and instead attempt to apply familiar labels to her experience. Her boss (Kal Penn) spews pithy statements about mental health and employee happiness, her fiancé harshly wonders what this will mean for his life, and her sister compares Rose to their mother, who also suffered from mental disorders and committed suicide. They stop listening and, therefore, stop seeing Rose — leaving her to face her demons alone.
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