Smile (United States, 2022)

September 30, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Smile Poster

Has the COVID-19 pandemic brought out the best in horror filmmakers? 2022 has not been a good year for cinema, but it has been a very good year for horror. Smile represents the latest in an impressive roster of horror films that have pushed the envelope, daring to go where most cookie-cutter fright-fests of the past decade have avoided treading. This is a dark, uncompromising movie that explores serious subjects like trauma and suicide. It unfolds almost like a murder mystery, albeit one with a distinctly supernatural aspect. Although arguably about ten minutes too long (the middle section sags a little under the weight of too much exposition), the film offers the necessary jump-scares to go along with a deeply unsettling aesthetic.

There’s no evidence of studio interference in Parker Finn’s debut feature. Perhaps that’s because the star-free cast is populated by relatively new faces – something that likely helped to keep the budget low. The only high-profile actor to appear in Smile is Kal Penn. For the lead, Sosie Bacon (the daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick), this is a breakthrough opportunity. Despite having worked in the industry for 13 years (mostly in shorts and TV, including “Mare of Easttown”), this is her first opportunity to frontline a production. Her unforced, low-key approach to the role of Dr. Rose Cotter recalls Lili Taylor from the 1990s. Bacon provides a compelling portrait of an empathetic doctor whose troubled past collides with a demonic force to fuel a descent into seeming madness.

The core conceit, which remains ambiguous until about midway through the film (and which I won’t reveal here) is unique enough that it could have provided several distinct plot alternatives to the one chosen by Finn, each of which would have been interesting in its own right. Despite the irony of the title, Smile isn’t played like a dark comedy (a favorite tone for many horror films). This is deadly serious, as befits the material. And, despite the inclusion of jump-scares (or “boo!” moments, as I sometimes call them), Finn doesn’t focus on atmosphere. Although filmed in New Jersey (primarily Jersey City), there’s something generic about the setting – this isn’t a case where the location becomes another character. The film’s horror is focused more on the interior of the characters than on the exterior.

Smile opens with a short, ambiguous prologue that hints at buried secrets in the psyche of the main character. How this crucial snippet from Rose’s past influences her present is left for exploration later in the proceedings. At the outset, we’re introduced to her as a competent but somewhat timid psychologist who is presented with a disturbing case: a young PhD student (Caitlin Stasey), afflicted with visions and afraid for her life, is seeking help. While in a session with Rose, her demeanor suddenly changes. She becomes eerily calm, breaks into a twisted, mocking smile, and uses a broken shard of pottery to slit her own throat. The suicide badly shakes Rose, eliciting sympathy from her boss (Kal Penn), her fiancé (Jessie T. Usher), and a police detective with whom she previously had a relationship (Kyle Gallner). When Rose starts to see and hear things, replicating her dead patient’s experiences, she becomes frightened that an evil “entity” is stalking her. Predictably, when she tries to tell others about this, including her therapist (Robin Weigert), she is met with expressions of disbelief and a suggestion that she should take some time off.

Smile, not unlike the recently released Pearl, works by building the audience’s sympathy for the lead character. It toys with the question of whether the deterioration of her sanity has natural or supernatural causes. And it asks the question of whether her fate is preordained or whether there’s something she can do to alter it. The more deeply viewers connect with Rose, the more intense and immediate her desperation and despair become. She’s given a time line of 4-7 days and the hours are slipping away.

Finn’s decision to structure the film as a mystery comes with a downside. The lengthy midsection during which Rose uncovers the nature of her affliction is slow and talky. The director drops in a few scares and visions but it’s mostly Rose and her past lover/detective sidekick following a trail of similar incidents (including an analysis of a gruesome security cam clip). Not all of this is believable (visits to a bereaved widow and a prison inmate occur too easily) and there’s not much chemistry between Bacon and Kyle Gallner.

Smile isn’t lighthearted entertainment and the feeling it leaves behind is the direct opposite one might expect from the title. Nevertheless, for those who appreciate true horror (as opposed to the more palatable version that has supplanted it over the years), this is a reminder that movies of this sort have the twin goals of unsettling and upsetting. That’s a mission statement Finn takes seriously and a goal Smile achieves.

Smile (United States, 2022)

Director: Parker Finn
Cast: Sosie Bacon, Kyle Gallner, Robin Weigert, Jessie T. Usher, Kal Penn, Gillian Zinser
Home Release Date: 2022-12-13
Screenplay: Parker Finn
Cinematography: Charlie Sarroff
Music: Cristobal Tapia de Veer
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Home Release Date: 2022-12-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Disturbing Images, Profanity)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1