“Smile” (2022) – Director/writer Parker Finn’s debut horror film offers nifty and crafty camerawork, effective scares, an intriguing premise, and creepy vibes that prowl in plain sight. All four concepts reveal themselves within the first 10 minutes, and if you buy into the movie’s sicko foundation, “Smile” will hook you on a 115-minute journey.
Put on your bravest face.
“Smile” begins in a psychiatric hospital, and Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) – in her late-20s/early-30s, but she’s worked here for quite a while – makes her rounds. We meet a frequently-hospitalized patient, Carl (Jack Sochet), who incessantly repeats the same rote sentences. From the get-go, we ascertain that Dr. Cotter shows patience with the men and women who seek her help.
This scene agreeably establishes our lead protagonist, but unsettling fireworks begin shortly after when her next patient – a traumatized Ph.D. student (Caitlin Stasey) – shares some alarming ideas with Dr. Cotter.
Laura’s (Stasey) specific comments will not be revealed in this review, but the said young woman kills herself in front of Rose which sets off trauma for the surviving doctor.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. It’s just beginning for Rose, as she soon sees disturbing visions that exacerbate an unhealed ordeal from her childhood. By the end of the first act, Laura’s emotional damage has imprinted on Rose, and the young doctor feels she’s careening down the same path.
Finn fills his full-length feature – based on his 11-minute SXSW award-winning short, “Laura Hasn’t Slept” (2020) – with psychological dread, but he also includes selected spots of frightening gore. In some cases, the moments take the form of distressing still-photo imagery, but in others, the events unfold in front of our central character in real-time.
Finn reaches into his bag of tricks to raise tension on Rose’s journey.
He ensures – for most of the film – that our heroine generally copes with this ordeal on her own. Rose is a final girl, but no other new victims present themselves, so she’s wrapped in a universe of one. Even though she lives with her fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), he’s about as useful as a pair of open-toe sandals on a skiing trip. For instance, the evening after Rose witnessed the suicide, Trevor decides to work late and leaves his loved one to manage her strain alone in their empty suburban home at night. Her sister is self-involved, and her therapist – who Rose starts seeing again – believes that her treatment should move slowly.
Rose is desperate for answers, but no one within earshot or eyeshot seems willing to help, but Bacon – Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick’s daughter – is more than up to the task of conveying her character’s torment in a harrowing performance of tears, quivers, and angst that feel wholly genuine.
Finn’s and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff’s creative camerawork frequently present an array of strange angles and close-ups – against a modern-day backdrop – that lend to slow cringing reveals, especially when we anticipate ominous visuals will slither into view. These moments – and there are several peppered throughout the production – lurk for our discomfort, and at times, the wait is agonizing.
In addition, the tone and Larry W. Brown’s art direction have an “Insidious” (2010) meets “It Follows” (2014) vibe, where monstrous acts can appear during daylight hours through ordinary experiences, like a child’s birthday party or a simple living room conversation. Based on the ambiance alone, this critic may have guessed that “Smile” is a David Robert Mitchell picture, which is a compliment to Parker Finn. Yes, the plot of “Smile” has some parallels to Mitchell’s “It Follows”, and since the aforementioned 2014 film is one of this critic’s favorite horror flicks over the last 10 years, any similarities are welcomed.
To keep his audience on edge, Finn makes it challenging to discern if Rose’s bizarre visions materialize in an imaginary world or a real one, and that’s by design. This also includes the movie’s title sequence that flashes on the screen with the unexpected violence of a Dario Argento flick. Hey, “Smile” literally gave me goosebumps between three and five times over two hours. My apologies, I didn’t keep an accurate count. My thoughts were a bit preoccupied with the distressing events on-screen.
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed and written by: Parker Finn
Starring: Sosie Bacon, Caitlin Stasey, Jessie T. Usher, Kal Penn, Robin Weigart, Kyle Gallner, and Rob Morgan
Runtime: 115 minutes