In Smile, Parker Finn’s debut feature film, mental health is front and centre. Not always successfully, but this is a constantly intriguing, compelling shocker about trauma.
Rose (Sosie Bacon) is a psychiatrist at a public hospital that’s dreadfully underfunded, but Rose is determined to help her patients, no matter the cost. She meets with a young woman who claims she’s seeing things. More specifically, she says it’s wearing other people’s faces like a mask.
Moments later, the young woman screams in terror, before smiling creepily and then cutting her own throat. Rose is deeply disturbed and traumatised and takes a week off to recover, but begins to experience equally terrifying visions and events. Is it just PTSD or has Rose inherited the young woman’s curse?
Horror is a complex genre. It’s often scary, but fear is subjective and there are many ways to invoke fear in your audience. Finn, a remarkably confident first time director, throws absolutely everything to the screen to terrify his audience and most of it works very well. Smile heavily relies on jump scares, but they are very well crafted and undoubtedly effective.
Finn also crafts an oppressive mood to his film. Smile constantly feels like the cinematic equivalent of a screw tightening and, at best, the film is almost intolerably tense and relentlessly scary. The scares keep coming hard and fast, with barely any time to breathe.
And maybe that’s where Smile goes a little wrong. There are some big themes here and ones that require a sensitivity that Smile does not have. Finn’s film is so full of ideas, but so busy with the plot, those ideas never have time to breathe or develop. Finn clearly has so much to say about how we treat people with mental health issues, but there could have been a deeper exploration of the fading, fleeting nature of reality for Rose.
Smile is also very heavy-handed with its themes. Subtlety clearly isn’t Finn’s strong point, but horror does still provide an effective lens through which to examine mental health. Horror has a long history of portraying and dissecting trauma and its effects and Smile seems to take that head on rather than use metaphors. Sometimes the bold approach pays off, but sometimes it feels almost laughable.
The film is very empathetic in its portrayal of mental health, but also unwittingly strengthens the stereotype that mental health issues always lead to violence. Also, not much sympathy is reserved for Rose’s fiancé, who is clearly scared and out of his depth at dealing with what looks like a psychotic episode to anyone who isn’t experiencing what Rose is experiencing first-hand.
In fact, he completely disappears from the film and isn’t the only one. There’s a nagging sense that a longer cut of Smile exists somewhere. At almost two hours, Smile, rather impressively, remains constantly entertaining and more importantly, a fun watch. It never takes itself too seriously. There are moments of levity, but there is something enjoyable about shrieking in terror, jumping out of your seat and then letting out a collective little giggle in the cinema after a particularly nasty jump scare.
Sosie Bacon is impressive as Rose. She communicates her growing panic and terror without ever slipping into melodramatic hysteria. Most supporting characters come and go, but Kyle Gallner manages to make an impression as Rose’s ex-boyfriend and detective investigating the case.
Most of Smile’s best jump scares have been spoiled in the trailers, but it’s still a very pleasant surprise. Finn directs the spooks with care, and uses gore sparingly, but to great effect. I think I can speak for all of us when I say, no one expected Smile to be quite as good as it turned out to be, but it’s such a joy to watch a truly exciting new horror film on the big screen.
Smile is now in cinemas.