Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Parker Finn
Stars: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T Usher, Caitlin Stasey, Kyle Gallner, Gillian Zisner, Kal Penn.
Not to be confused with the 1975 film of the same name from director Michael Ritchie (which was a satire of beauty pageants), Smile is a creepy horror film about an insidious curse that is passed from one person to the next with deadly consequences. This is a premise familiar to audiences through films like The Ring, The Grudge, It Follows and their ilk. The film is the feature film directorial debut for Parker Finn and is an extension of his own 2020 short horror film Laura Hasn’t Slept. It is a strong debut that marks him as a talent to watch in the horror genre.
Dr Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, from the tv series 13 Reasons Why, etc) is a psychologist who works in the emergency psych ward at a major metropolitan hospital. She is still dealing with the emotional burden of having watched her mother commit suicide when she was just ten years old. Her experience makes her more empathetic towards some of her disturbed patients. But her fragile emotional state further deteriorates after an unstable and paranoid PHD student named Laura (Caitlin Stasey, who starred in Finn’s short film) approaches her for help. Laura recently watched in horror as her advisor committed suicide by beating himself to death with a hammer. Traumatised by what she witnessed, Laura believes that she is being haunted by a malevolent entity that wears other people’s faces and smiles creepily at its victims. Then Laura kills herself in particularly gruesome and violent fashion in front of Rose.
Soon after Rose begins to suffer strange hallucinations and nightmare and begins to believe that whatever possessed Laura has now attached itself to her. When Rose finds little support from her fiancé Travor (Jessie T Usher, from tv series The Boys, etc) or her older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), she turns to her former boyfriend detective Joel (Kyle Gallner, from tv series Veronica Mars, etc) to try and make sense of what is happening. Most of her friends and family, and even her sympathetic boss (Kal Penn), who suggests that she take a week off work, think that she is suffering some form of PTSD and her increasingly strange behaviour is related to the unresolved guilt over her mother’s death. They fear that she is slowly losing her grip on reality and beginning to slide down that same spiral into madness that consumed her mother.
Rose soon discovers that there is a curse passed on from the person who commits suicide to the witness, and then that witness kills themselves in bloody fashion within a week. Rose is desperate to try and find a way to stop the curse before it’s too late.
Bacon, who is the daughter of actor Kevin, brings a convincing air of desperation and vulnerability to her performance as Rose. Robin Weingart is also good as Rose’s sympathetic therapist Dr Northcott.
Some great special effects have been used to create a grotesque monster for the film’s climax, but the ending stretched credibility a little, especially given everything that precedes it.
Though its premise is a little derivative, Smile is a creepy and unsettling but finely crafted horror film that explores the issue of mental health, suicide, guilt, and the impact of trauma and PTSD. Finn has a knack for the grotesque and there are plenty of disturbing and grisly sequences here that are not for the faint hearted, and he incorporates several nicely timed jump scares. Finn and his cinematographer Charlie Sarroff use some disconcerting and unusual camera angles and tricks such as upside-down shots and off kilter angles to reflect Rose’s sense of alienation and paranoia and to add to the growing sense of dread. Cristobal Tapia de Veers’ score is disconcerting and creates the unsettling mood. Elliot Greenberg’s crisp editing maintains the taut air of suspense.