Smile – Film Review
by David Turpin
Director – Parker Finn
Writer – Parker Finn
Stars – Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner
Writer-director Parker Finn makes his feature debut with Smile, a sturdily crafted if rather by-the-numbers horror film based on his own 2020 short Laura Hasn’t Slept. Sosie Bacon stars as Rose, a well-intentioned psychiatric therapist dealing with patients in acute distress.
One such patient, Laura (Caitlin Stasey) has been hallucinating – or has she? – a sinister presence that takes on the guise of people around her, imposing a ghoulish grin upon their faces. When Laura takes her own life, in a rather gruesome fashion, Rose finds the curse transferred to her.
If this sounds a lot like The Ring – both Hideo Nakata’s unnerving 1998 original and Gore Verbinski’s delightfully spooky 2002 remake – that’s because it is. Smile, however, doesn’t manage to finesse its own predictability in the same way as those films, both of which used incidental invention to keep things cooking on their journey to foregone conclusions. Smile dispenses with any real investigation into the hows and whys of the curse – although a charming Kyle Gallner is on-hand as a lovelorn detective-turned-sidekick – in favour of a sense of grim inexorability. That means the pleasures are mainly to be found in the control Finn shows in playing the stock situations of supernatural horror. This he does rather well, even if most of the big surprises have been spoiled by the trailer.
Naturally, this being a 21st-century horror film, we are made amply aware that we are watching a capital-M Metaphor. In this case, the psycho-social ill to be filtered through the prism of genre is, rather generally, trauma. As ever, the jury is out as to whether this metaphorical impulse is subtext, pretext or a sprayed-on veneer. This correspondent would be inclined to suggest the latter, as it increasingly feels that such metaphors are being deployed – particularly in studio productions such as this – to ‘justify’ a genre that thrives, at least in part, on its resistance to justification. Providing a commentary on one’s own themes– which Smile does in a series of unnecessary speeches that gum up the otherwise strong climactic sequence – has the perverse effect of making them less persuasive.
Although the horror mechanics are handled with style and a sense of craft, Finn is less assured on straightforward dramatic material. His tendency to isolate characters at the centre of the frame plays well into the film’s paranoid themes, but a couple of awkwardly staged two-person conversations break the spell, actors stagily declaiming their lines at one another from opposite sides of the screen. One senses the impetus was to simply mow through this obligatory stuff, to get back to the canted angles, inverted landscapes, and sinister tracking shots. There’s probably a certain logic to that, though it makes for some watch-through-the-fingers material of the unintended variety.
Of the cast, Bacon and Gallner have the most to do, and they acquit themselves well –although, as written, Bacon’s rather weak heroine has none of the zest Naomi Watts brought to a similar part in The Ring. In support, Gillian Zinser provides what comic relief there is; Kal Penn and Robin Weigert are reasonably flavourful if a tad underused, in the ‘concerned disbeliever’ parts. Composer Cristobel Tapia de Veer – perhaps best known for The White Lotus – provides a score that is interestingly anti-melodic, if a little on-the-nose in its various screams and throbs.
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