Psychiatricist Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) witnesses a horrific suicide, and becomes convinced that an evil entity is stalking her in the aftermath. An entity that looks like people she knows, sometimes stranger, sometimes loved ones - but all share a common trait. They all smile at her...
Mental illness and trauma as horror isn't a particularly new concept, but it's one that has gained traction in recent years with the likes of 'The Babadook', 'Hereditary', and more pointedly, 'The Ring' and 'It Follows'. What's more, horror very often requires a huge amount of skill to navigate properly because it's a genre that has to illicit something involuntary from its audience, or else it's a complete failure. The cheap trick is jump scares and air horn sound effects, but building an atmosphere and unsettling audiences takes time and patience. In the pursuit of pacing and alacrity, this gets thrown overboard for the surer, more obvious thing.
'Smile' is somewhere in the middle. It utilises pretty cheap jump scares, and no doubt audiences will leap out of their skins when they see some of them. One in particular from the trailer is particularly effective. Yet, 'Smile' has more to offer than just this, and that comes down to both its game cast and the precise direction from Parker Finn. By staffing 'Smile' with a talented supporting cast like 'Deadwood' alum Robin Weigert, Jessie T. Usher from 'The Boys', and Rob Morgan, it has a far better chance of becoming believable and consequently more intense. Sosie Bacon, however, is put through it all and her genuinely harrowing performance as a woman going off the deep end is something special.
Still, 'Smile' labours its point more often than it needs to. At two hours, it's a horror that outstays its welcome, especially when you consider it initially began life as a short film. The use of mental illness as an inducement to horror also can come across as exploitative, particularly when it relates to suicides. Writer-director Parker Finn is going over terrain previously covered in the likes of 'The Ring' and 'It Follows', particularly in the idea of a horrific entity taking on a familiar form and the process by which it attaches to someone forming a chain to others. Normally, this would put a movie on the back foot because it invariably draws comparisons, but 'Smile' has enough style, and Finn has coaxed such strong performances out of his cast, that it's able to hold its own against them. In fact, its climax is particularly unsettling, both for its visuals and for what it ultimately has to say about trauma.
'Smile' definitely has a lot going for it - strong performances by its lead and supporting cast, a director with a sharp command of visuals, and a familiar concept that translates well. It may be reaching higher than it gets, and it certainly isn't as smart as it thinks it is, but there's enough to make 'Smile' one of the standouts of the genre this year.