Smile (2022)

Smile first published by Sight and Sound

Writer/director Parker Finn’s feature debut begins with a face in close-up, but not with the smile promised by the title. A woman (Dora Kiss) is lying prone and dead in her bed, and as the camera tilts and pans across the floor, we see a mess of spilt pills, empty bottles and unwashed clothes economically insinuating the story of her undoing, before the camera stops on the face of her ten-year old daughter in the doorway. This is Rose Cotter, and also the primal scene of her trauma. Now an adult (Sosie Bacon) and a psychiatrist committed to helping others through their mental illness, Rose briefly meets a new patient (Caitlin Stasey) who, after claiming persecution by a malevolently grinning, body-swapping entity that nobody else sees, kills herself in front of Rose while smiling grotesquely throughout. Now Rose herself starts seeing the entity, which tells her that she will be next to die – or perhaps this is just an old emotional wound reopened and retriggered, and an overworked professional succumbing to the guilt and PTSD that have haunted her since childhood. With help from policeman – and her ex-boyfriend – Joel (Kyle Gallner), Rose races against the ticking clock of trauma.

In other words, Smile comes overdetermined, pivoting ambiguously between psychological and supernatural frames of reference – although, given its status as horror, you can probably guess which of these explanations will ultimately be privileged. Meanwhile it also unbalances the poles between craft and originality, as Finn has to compensate with the one for what his film lacks in the other. For Smile certainly fails to bring anything new to films – like Hideo Nakata’s J-horror Ring (1998) or the entire Final Destination franchise – wherein a person races to find a way to elude or transfer a deadline-driven curse of doom, and it arguably has less to say than other recent entries in the subgenre like David Robert Mitchell’s abstract It Follows (2014) or Andy Mitton’s Covid-inf(l)ected The Harbinger (2022). 

Yet Charlie Sarroff’s fluid, canted camerawork, Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s unhinged score and Bacon’s nuanced performance of desperate breakdown all ensure that Finn’s film will keep the viewer rattled and on edge for the duration, in what is a finely tuned if derivative cross-country dash for catharsis in New Jersey, ultimately leading back to the remote, dilapidated seat of Rose’s trauma. And then there is that recurring forced rictus, ironically signifying the absence of pain (according to a chart in the hospital where Rose works), and turning upside-down the frown with which the film opens, in an unnerving inversion of therapeutic bromides. I smiled.  

strap: Parker Finn’s curse horror offers a finely tuned if derivative cross-country dash for catharsis from a trauma that it also induces

Anton Bitel