Smile marks the feature debut of Parker Finn. As many before him, Finn has chosen horror as his letter of introduction.
Expanded from a short film by Finn, Smile doesn’t transcend genre but aims for more than jump scares, creep-outs, and gore — although it has a reasonable amount of all three.
Staring Sosie Bacon in a disturbingly agitated performance, the movie attempts to show what happens when a sane person tries to convince others of something that most normal people would regard as crazy. Good luck with that.
Of course, there’s not much good luck on display in Smile. You might even say that the movie is about the bad fortune that may spring from a dark secret, something that Bacon’s character assiduously has tried to avoid.
Bacon’s Rose is a psychiatrist who works with severely disturbed patients. She’s not one to listen while bored Gen Xers complain about lack of fulfillment. She’s up for the heavy lift.
In an early scene, Rose tries to assure a terrified young woman that she’s not going to die. The newly admitted patient claims that she’s a serious person, a Ph.D. candidate who’s not crazy.
Her story: A mysterious entity appears to this young woman in the form of different people. These appearances — seen only by her and mistaken by others for hallucinations — have an evil smile plastered across their faces, devilish concierges welcoming guests to hell.
A skeptical Rose begins to question her judgment when her patient commits suicide in front of her, slashing her throat with pieces of a broken vase.
The movie plays with a notion that’s familiar to those who consider themselves “normal” — or at least capable of operating within the bounds of acceptability: What has been seen cannot be unseen.
Written by Finn, the movie also weaves an ingenious thread through its story: Those who witness a suicide become the “entity’s” next victim, the next person doomed to be regarded as crazy until the demon (or whatever it is) forces suicide and migrates to its next witnessing host. The cycle of terror becomes perpetual.
The movie rests on Bacon’s shoulders and she carries it with a bit of assistance from the supporting cast. Rose’s supportive finance (Jessie. T. Usher) believes his prospective wife may have gone ‘round sanity’s bend. Kyle Gallner plays Joel, a former lover and detective who’s drawn into Rose’s drama. Robin Weigert portrays Rose’s therapist. She thinks Rose’s condition might have something to do with her mother, who committed suicide when Rose was a girl.
Kal Penn turns up as Rose’s boss at the mental institution where she works, and Gillian Zinser appears as Rose’s older sister, a woman who’s mortified and alarmed by Rose’s behavior at her nephew’s seventh birthday party, one of the movie’s horror high points.
Finn probably relies too much on the movie’s score (alternately creepy or bludgeoning) and errs at the end, I think, when he shows the monster. It should have remained invisible, even if a bit of metaphoric intent is at play here.
We already see the story from Rose’s point-of-view. But what if we left the theater with more uncertainty?
I’ve seen Smile described as better than the usual helping of horror and that seems right. I’ll leave it that, offering restrained appreciation for a movie that isn’t without intelligence but still too beholden to the more obvious demands of its genre.