Despite high concept marketing, an overreliance on jump scares leaves me stony-faced during Smile
Adapted from his own 2020 short film LAURA HASN’T SLEPT, writer/ director Parker Finn takes the welcome approach of making SMILE a continuation rather than a rehash of the original, with Caitlin Stacey reprising her role of Laura and providing the instigating events which set SMILE into motion.
When Laura Weaver, a patient complaining of hallucinations of smiling people foretelling her death calmly slits her own throat in front of her, Doctor Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is understandably horrified. But when another of her patients apparently starts grinning maniacally and predicting Rose’s own death, she begins to experience hallucinations of her own. As the hallucinations increase in frequency and intensity, Rose begins to believe that she is dealing with some kind of supernatural entity and must find a way to free herself of the curse.
The success of the viral marketing for the film lies in the simplicity of its motif, the smile. That damned smile. It’s a masterpiece of visual horror, the dissonance of the grinning mouth and the humourless, dead eyes, tapping into the exact same source of unease that both draws us into and repels us from the Uncanny Valley. Unfortunately, the trouble with this particular damned smile – and damned it surely is – is that it’s surrounded by a dull, almost studiously grey film which throws away its chilling potential in an escalating series of obnoxious jump scares and Russian-doll style bait-and-switch hallucinatory escapades.
That it succeeds at all is down to a strong central performance from Sosie Bacon, who shoulders the entire film while the underused supporting cast drift in and out, never quite behaving in a believable or sympathetic manner. There’s little to no flirting with ambiguity despite the unreliable nature of the narration and we’re left in little doubt that something supernatural is at work but while the entity’s nature isn’t clearly articulated, it’s hard to shake the feeling that SMILE falls back on retreading that path walked by the likes of THE RING or IT FOLLOWS instead of sinking its teeth into something fresh.
Despite its clinical setting, it doesn’t even find anything pertinent or insightful to say about the very real life horrors of untreated trauma and satisfies itself with a dispiritingly formulaic storytelling approach.
SMILE does have a few bravura moments (Rose’s nephew’s birthday party is a standout) and apparently ingratiated itself enough with cinema audiences to merit a sequel so I guess we’ll just have to grin and bear it for now.