Directed by: Parker Finn
Premise: A mental health professional (Sosie Bacon) witnesses the suicide of a patient who claimed to have visions of people maniacally smiling. The doctor then starts having the same visions.
What Works: The recent boom in the horror genre has been accompanied by contemporary concerns about mental health. These trends have dovetailed into a subgenre of trauma horror as seen in David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy, Mike Flannagan’s Midnight Mass, Remi Weekes’ His House, and Ari Aster’s Midsommar. Smile is the most blatant example of trauma horror. It is about a curse passed from one person to another by witnessing suicide. As on the nose as it might be, Smile is also quite effective. It visualizes the idea of grief and trauma in a visceral and powerful way. The threat manifests itself with people contorting their face into a forced maniacal smile and the protagonist keeps insisting she is fine while she clearly is not. Depression and mental illness often has an isolating effect which the filmmakers cleverly visualize. The set pieces are well choreographed to draw out the tension and Smile uses sound very effectively. The film has a notable lead performance by Sosie Bacon. She plays this just right, carrying the weight of her curse and drawing out whether these visions are real or a delusion. Despite the heavy themes, Smile also manages to be a spooky good time. It’s scary and tense but in the enjoyable way of a good ghost story.
What Doesn’t: Since the release of Carrie in 1976 the horror genre has been overtaken by the twist ending. Virtually every movie tries to cram in one last scare to send the audience out of the theater on a high. Sometimes this works as it did in Carrie and the original Friday the 13th and Drag Me to Hell. However, this convention has become a cliché that can play as a cynical refutation of the protagonist’s triumph. The twist ending of Smile runs headfirst into the film’s metaphor for mental health with hopeless implications that deny the possibility of catharsis.
Bottom Line: Despite a relentlessly and maybe mistakenly cynical ending, Smile is a successful horror picture. It mixes scares with a tangible sense of how trauma and depression haunt the afflicted.
Episode: #923 (October 23, 2022)