Trauma and Terror are spreading in New Horror Movie ‘Smile’
Sosie Bacon plays a therapist who, after a scary encounter with a patient, starts seeing creepy visions. Can she solve the mystery before she’s the next victim?
It’s also one of those movies that benefits from knowing as little as possible, so we’ll say it’s worth watching for horror hounds, but doesn’t quite live up to its premise or its initial scenes.
Drawing on the sort of subjects he tackled in the short ‘Laura Hasn’t Slept’ that he made before this feature directorial debut (the short’s star, Caitlin Stasey, makes the jump to the movie with a similarly troubled character carrying the same name as ‘Laura Hasn’t Slept’), writer/director Parker Finn makes an impressive, but mixed first stab at longer form moviemaking.
‘Smile’s focus is Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a therapist whose own life is already a little tough. She’s not sleeping well, having nightmares about discovering her mother dead when she was young, and despite having set up a seemingly perfect life with fiancé Trevor (‘The Boys’ Jessie T. Usher), Rose is exhausted and feeling the emotional strain of a job that has her encountering distressed and mentally unwell people on a daily basis.
Yet a horrifying encounter with a newly arrived patient (Stasey’s Laura Weaver, in a state of shock after a college professor killed himself in front of her), Rose is even more unsettled. Laura commits suicide in the bloodiest way possible, a creepy smile slapped on her face after previously babbling about seeing strange visions.
Soon, Rose is disturbed by weird encounters of her own – someone appears to break into her home, but the police can find nothing. Another patient displays the same intense, freakish smile. And then her life really starts to go wrong when she attends her nephew’s birthday party, and the gift she has brought is brutally different from the one she wrapped (trigger warning here for cat owners).
Estranged from friends and family, Rose turns to her ex, police officer Joel (Kyle Gallner) and starts to really dig into the mystery of this supernatural phenomenon. Can she figure out how to escape her apparent suicidal fate?
Feeling a little like a mash-up of ‘It Follows’ and the original ‘Ringu’ movie (but despite a promising opening, never quite reaching either film’s level), Finn’s horror outing is an audacious, yet simple premise and features a haunted performance by Bacon (yes, the daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, whose credits include ‘Mare of Easttown’ and ‘The Last Summer’).
She’s endlessly watchable as she becomes twitchier and more isolated, vulnerable and yet tough when the moment truly calls for it.
Surrounding her are Gallner, who gives his all to the cop character, and Gillian Zinser, who is able to switch between sharp and sympathetic as Rose’s older sister Holly, who has washed her hair of her family by starting her own.
She’s angry at Rose for holding on to the old family home, site of so much tragedy, but if you don’t think the dilapidated old house in the middle of nowhere isn’t going to factor into the plot, you’ve clearly never seen a horror movie.
The script doesn’t always support the committed cast, dipping into ridiculous levels of horror cliché that will have you grinning in a way that the filmmakers probably didn’t intend. And there is too often an overreliance on the sort of jump scares that we’ve seen hundreds of times. Given how creative early scenes are, it’s sad to see a degeneration later on into the school of quiet-quiet-LOUD horror directing.
It’s all the more frustrating, because Finn and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff conjure some effective visuals to draw us into Rose’s state of mind, keeping close quarters with her at times while widening out for other shots to lull us into a false sense of security.
Slowly rotating camera shots also add to the unsettling feeling, though while they work to begin with, the repetitive use eventually undercuts their power.
And the sound team, meanwhile, including composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, are worthy of particular note, since ‘Smile’ features one of the most atmospheric, unnerving sonic landscapes of any recent movie. With the dial set close to “discordant”, it’s helpful to both bring us into Rose’s point of view and keep us on edge, waiting for the next scare to appear.
Finally, the effects largely work, digital tricks mixing with typically successful practical visions from Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, who bring to life all manner of freakish creations without becoming ludicrous.
This is very much a film of two halves, the build-up full of decent creep-factor and tension ratcheting (with a few issues from the script and one or two dodgier performances) before the mystery deepens and the movie sadly swings between dull stretches of exposition and a truly giggle-worthy descent into entirely expected terror territory.
While it explores ideas of holding onto trauma and how we deal with it, the movie never quite digs far beneath the surface, and that can lead to some unfortunately problematic moments that verge on exploitative.
Yet for all its concerns, this is an ambitious and confident debut from a filmmaker who shows real promise if he can curb his more traditional instincts and escape leaning too hard on the initial ideas that they crumble under the pressure.
Not a full on beam, then, more a quiet smile for ‘Smile’.
‘Smile’ receives 3 out of 5 stars.