It seems that every year, there’s that horror film. You know the one – the trailer plays every single time you’re waiting for your movie to start and you watch with an eye roll as it gives away plot point after plot point, jump scare after jump scare. The visuals are the same as every other uncreative horror flick that came before it. The actor is someone you maybe recognise? From that one thing? Think of 2018’s Truth or Dare, with its cartoonish, Tik Tok-filter grins and bare minimum interest in purpose and theme. Smile (ironically also centred around creepy grins) was my prime candidate for that horror film of 2022.
I’m happy to report that I was wrong.
Before we can discuss all that, though, a summary: Smile opens with a nightmare, a recollection of our protagonist’s mother’s death by suicide. Dr. Rose Cotter (played by Sosie Bacon, daughter of that guy from the EE advert) awakes slumped over her desk and papers. She’s a therapist who spends most of her days and nights treating patients in a hospital’s psychiatric unit. It’s clear to the audience that this workaholism is not the healthiest of habits for Rose, but she’s completely incorrigible.
Laura, a new patient of Dr. Cotter’s who witnessed her professor’s gruesome suicide, claims that something is stalking her: an invisible entity that takes on the appearance of other people, and always sports a sinister smile. Their session ends in a bizarre and bloody incident, leaving Rose distressed and haunted by what she has watched unfold.
And thus begins her waking nightmare – the entity Laura described now seems to lurk in every corner of Rose’s life. After her supervisor pushes her to take some time off work, Rose decides to get to the bottom of things, all while being increasingly tormented by horror after horror. As her escalating paranoia and increasing psychosis spills into her life, her familial, romantic, and professional relationships begin to corrode. She realises her only chance at survival is to finally confront her past trauma.
That trauma is the emotional core of Smile, particularly the ways in which it can insidiously invade all parts of your life and the lives of all those around you. I won’t pretend Smile brings anything ground-breaking to the table on this subject – by and large, the film is a surface-level discussion of these ideas. That being said, I don’t necessarily think that this stops these points from ringing true. Additionally, the ambiance of this film supports its conceptual goals. It’s a sensitive topic handled with careful hands and intention – apart from the ending, unfortunately, which is bound to be spoiled if discussed too specifically. Suffice it to say that it is, in a word, divisive.
Overall, writer-director Parker Finn’s debut is an admirable attempt – the direction is smooth and cohesive. Bacon, constantly shivering in terror and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is genuinely great. In the vein of It Follows (2014) and Ring (1998), Smile makes good use of its oppressive, paranoid atmosphere, though not always as effectively as the former two. That might partly be due to the sheer number of jump scares. That being said, the scares aren’t cheaply executed and certainly crept up on me when I wasn’t expecting them. Regardless, the film is far from perfect: loose plot threads abound, dialogue is often stilted and strange, and the supporting cast is just simply there, with little opportunity to add anything substantial to the emotional thrust of the film.
Still, it’s a solidly enjoyable and thrilling time at the cinema that definitely gets you in the mood for spooky season. And beyond that, there is, at least, an appreciable attempt at reaching for something more, something deeper in relation to trauma and its impacts – and when it’s weighed against recent horror films as vacant and devoid of heart as Truth or Dare? Well, that’s good enough for me.