Happy endings are far from guaranteed in Parker Finn’s crowd-pleasing horror hit
Dir/scr: Parker Finn. US. 2022. 115mins
‘Put on a happy face’. ‘You look so much prettier when you smile’. These are problematic epithets at the best of times, and debut feature director Parker Finn pushes them to their troubling limits in Smile; a long-form remake of his 2020 SXSW Special Jury Award-winning short Laura Hasn’t Slept. This is, for the most part, a smart, effective horror which mines the psychological demons that can overwhelm even the most stable of lives, even if it relies too heavily on easy jump scares to deliver its shocks.
A stinging reminder that we are expected to plaster a smile over our psychological wounds
Those jumps are, however, a large reason why the $17m-budgeted Smile has topped both the US and UK and Ireland box office,, taking a combined $95m at the time of writing. As Paramount found during test screenings which altered the release strategy from a streaming-only to theatrical release, audiences who have missed the collective big-screen experience will find much to enjoy here, and the 18 rating in the UK, possibly due to a combination of violence and suicidal themes, doesn’t appear to be a deterrant. That word of mouth — together with a creepy marketing campaign which has involved theatre-only teasers and carefully-placed smiling actors going viral on social media — is likely to push this release into blockbuster territory.
The eerily grinning face of Caitlin Stasey (star of Laura Hasn’t Slept) may adorn Smile’s impactful posters, but it’s no spoiler to say that she doesn’t survive the film’s first 15 minutes. Here, as in that short, she plays the deeply troubled Laura, who is suffering from nightmarish visions after witnessing one of her college professors die by suicide. Emergency room psychiatrist Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) attempts to help Laura, only for the terrified young woman to suddenly stop screaming, start smiling and cut her own throat with a shard of broken vase.
As she attempts to deal with the resulting shock, Rose also begins to suffer from horrifying visions — grotesquely grinning faces appear in every dark corner — and becomes convinced that she is being targeted by a malevolent entity. Her attempts to understand and out-run this passed-on curse follows a familiar narrative seen in the likes of The Ring, It Follows and, specifically, The Grudge, with which this film shares the idea of trauma as infection.
While Smile doesn’t pretend to be dramatically original, and many of the shocks come straight out of the genre rulebook — a shape in the shadows, a voice on the telephone, an ill-fated pet — it does create an uneasy atmosphere that’s entirely separate to its supernatural elements. Sosie Bacon is excellent as Rose, the seemingly put-together, privileged doctor whose unravelling seems not only to be a response to these extreme events, but also a painful past that she can’t shake off. Her dynamic with both dismissive fiancé Trevor (Jessie T Usher) and weary older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) hum with pain; neither are able to offer her the support she needs when she is at her lowest ebb. Pointedly, her irritatingly composed therapist (Robin Weigert), a practitioner of platitudes, doesn’t seem to really listen — something Laura had accused Rose of doing earlier in the film.
Craft choices underpin Rose’s increasing isolation. She is permanently dressed in muted tones, her surroundings shadowy and washed out when she is alone. By contrast, others — notably her sister, who has worked hard to live a life undefined by her past — sport bright hues of pink, white and yellow. Extreme angles (upside down shots being somewhat over-used) and intimate close-ups place Rose off-kilter and alone in her psychosis, as normal life goes on around her.
This is not just writer/director Finn poking at the tired genre trope of the hysterical, paranoid woman who no-one believes — apart from, in Rose’s case, her kindly policeman ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner). It’s a stinging reminder that, if we are to be accepted in the wider world, we are expected to plaster a smile over our psychological wounds, to pretend we are fine. To hide our demons, lest they offend others, and fight alone. While Smile may be full of crowd-pleasing splatter, this tragic truth leaves the biggest mark.
Production company: Temple Hill Entertainment, Paramount Players
Worldwide distribution: Paramount Pictures
Producers: Martyn Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner, Robert Salerno
Cinematography: Charlie Sarroff
Production design: Lester Cohen
Editing: Elliot Greenberg
Music: Cristobal Tapia de Veer
Main cast: Sosie Bacon, Kyle Gallner, Jessie T Usher, Caitlin Stasey, Robin Weigert