There’s no real formula for a great horror movie. A great horror movie can be poignant and slow. It can be fast and exciting. It can be gross, it can be understated. Really as long as a horror film is scary, interesting, or engaging, anything goes. Smile, the directorial debut of Parker Finn, wants to be many of these things, but in an attempt to check those boxes, it fails at the most important one: being enjoyable to watch.
Smile stars Sosie Bacon (13 Reasons Why, Mare of Easttown) as Rose, an overworked hospital psychologist who tries to help a patient that’s legitimately disturbed. This woman, an otherwise sane Ph.D. candidate, pleads with Rose to trust that she’s truly seeing something she believes will kill her. Rose obviously doesn’t believe her—and, as a result, she ends up seeing the same things the Ph.D. candidate saw: visions of an entity that looks just like the people in your life, but with big, terrifying grins on their faces.
Rose tries to tell her husband Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) about it, but he doesn’t believe her. She tries to tell her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) about it, but she doesn’t believe her. She tries to tell… you get the idea. No one believes the story Rose is telling, just like she didn’t believe the woman who may have passed the curse on to her. As things get worse and worse, Rose tries to figure out where this presence came from and ends up uncovering more than she ever could’ve imagined.
The problem with Smile isn’t the idea of it. The idea of this evil entity that just creepily smiles at you is exactly that: creepy. It’s ripe with possibility. But Smile never lives up to it. Yes, there are a handful of intense smile scenes. A couple of good jump scares. Some legit gore here and there. But that’s few and far between when compared to the main story of Rose trying to solve the overarching mystery and being gaslit. She can’t find anyone who believes her and that isolation ends up weighing even more on her, and the audience watching, than the evil itself. It gets to be so bad you’re begging for the smile demon to pop out and do something just so Rose will just stop having doors slammed in her face. Even the people who do try and help her, like an ex-boyfriend/cop (Kyle Gallner) or her own psychiatrist (Robin Weigert), don’t actually understand or buy into Rose’s story. Which only makes things worse.
Within this idea Finn, who also wrote the script, obviously wants to explore trauma and its long-lasting impacts. Which is valid. But Rose’s core trauma, and inability to get anyone to believe her removes any of the fun the occasional smile scene brings. As a result, the film almost becomes punishing in its insistence that Rose is in an unescapable, no-win situation. Therefore, the true horror doesn’t come from the evil presence, it comes more from the humans who don’t believe in it. That may sound like a cool, unique take on the genre but some of Finn’s flashier stylistic choices, such as multiple upside drone shots and occasional out-of-place gore, don’t mesh with it. As a result, Rose’s isolation being the real villain is more like a haphazard consequence rather than the true intention.
Smile does its best to be a cool, hip, fun horror movie, while also saying something meaningful and important. But in trying to achieve too many things, it fails at them all. It either needed to be much more energetic or have deeper thematic resonance. But it accomplishes neither. And that did not leave a smile on our face.
Smile just had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2022. It opens wide September 30.
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