From the opening scene of Smile, the feature film debut of writer-director Parker Finn, you know exactly what kind of horror film you are getting into. It is the same storytelling device used throughout the genre, using one’s traumatic past to haunt them through an entity so unbeatable that the protagonist must come to terms with themselves and the real demons that are haunting them. We’ve seen it before in films like The Ring, It Follows, The Grudge, and even the new entries in the Halloween franchise. These renowned stories lay the groundwork for the newest addition to their ranks, and while Smile doesn’t offer any new insight into the psychological horror genre, its scares, and lead performance lift it from being a forgettable experience.
Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) has a good, yet busy life. Her week is consumed with an 80 hours’ work week, dealing with patients who suffer from mental, physiological issues. She is stuffing her life with so much to do that she barely has time for a life outside of her normal routine of going home, eating dinner with her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), feeding her cat, and falling sleep to do it all again tomorrow. One afternoon, she is asked to do a patient consult on a girl named Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey) who has been admitted with major emotional distress. When Rose first looks at Laura, the young lady’s eyes are dark, as if she hasn’t gotten sleep in days, tormented by the issues she is facing. Laura explains to Rose that she has been things, people in and out of her life that come up to her with a terrifying smile on their face. It has been eating her alive and no one will believe her that this is going on. As Rose starts to talk out the situation with her and get more information, Laura starts screaming, as a being has entered the room. But when Rose calls for help, she sees the same smile on Laura’s face, and with a shape object, Laura kills herself in front of Rose.
Once the body is cleaned up, the police come by to take Rose’s statement about the innocent. This is when we are introduced to Joel (Kyle Gallner), Rose’s ex-boyfriend who has been giving her space since their breakup ended abruptly several months before. He, alongside everyone at the hospital, ask Rose if she is okay, but her mind is already focused on moving on and past what has happened. So, when Rose comes home, pours a glass of wine to unwind after her day, she starts seeing people in her house, faces from her past including her deceased mother, who died when Rose was just ten years old. This sets her on a path of slowly losing her mind, much like Laura when they first met. In a matter of three days, Rose’s life spirals out of control, losing her relationship with Trevor, her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), and her good standing with her job. To get rid of this insidious curse, Rose must track down the origin of this haunting figure and see if there is a chance of surviving before her fate is sealed.
The road to this feature film has been a long one for Finn, as he was about to premiere his short film Laura Hasn’t Slept, the origin of Smile, at SXSW in 2020. But because of the pandemic, he couldn’t screen it in in person, though after winning a jury prize, he got the greenlight to make this project. As the events of the film unfold, you can feel the adaptation from short to long form storytelling being stretched to its limits. This stems from the central conceit of Smile being a dubious rehash of smart ideas from the past meshing together with pacing issues throughout the middle sections of the film. Plus, Finn does the cardinal sin of horror storytelling, in that instead of setting up simple rules from the beginning for this creature he has created, things are made up and unfold as the film goes along. While this might be a good trick to keep the characters on their toes from knowing how to defeat it, for the audience, it’s jarring to try and put it all together in your head and have it all make sense. But to give him credit, he doesn’t try to wrap the story up in a nice bow and call it a day. He makes the darkest decision one could do with his feature debut, in allowing pure nightmares to just take over and the evil to fully come alive with a devastating outcome. Let’s just pray this film’s ending doesn’t lead to a sequel where this idea is undercut and wasted much like many other horror properties.
While his screenplay leaves a lot to be desired, his direction is sharp, crisp, and fully in control of the few moments that jump off the page. The visions of the entity within Rose and Laura’s mind are some of the best jump scares in some time. Finn lingers just long enough to think you are out of the clear of being scared but then mortify you shortly after. It is not an easy thing to get an audience to jump out of their seats and Smile certainly does so effectively when it is focused solely on Bacon and her character’s internal struggles and the sheading of her distressing past. Known for being a character actor on hit shows like Scream, 13 Reasons Why, and Mare of Easttown, Sosie Bacon is given the wheel of this horror vehicle to create a star turning, captivating performance as Rose. When the movie strips itself down to just her and the creature in the final act, it becomes the best portion of the film because she is grounded and sincere enough to allow us to buy into Rose’s struggles and descent into madness. She, alongside Gallner, are the only performances with enough realism and emotion to buy into, because they elevated their work from what they were given on the page.
Smile gets by on its effective, terrifying jump scares and Bacon’s dialed in performance. Finn shows that he has visional promise in the horror genre, but here’s hoping his next project is a little more pruned, devoid of getting in his way of the set up and allowing the scares and actors to truly take center stage. If he does that, then that might not only be something to look forward to, but it could also be a more effective as an overall film.
Paramount Pictures will release Smile only in theaters on September 30.