“When you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you,” sang Louis Armstrong back in 1929. Nearly 100 years later Smile gives this cheerful idiom a whole new context: what if the whole world was smiling at you.
From an anthropological standpoint, a smile contains an inherent threat. Creatures in the animal kingdom typically ‘smile’ to bare their teeth.
That humanity has changed it into a friendly gesture only works if social conventions are followed.
Smile, a psychological horror film and debut feature from writer-director Parker Finn, gleefully taps into the primal fear generated from a smile in the wrong place, wrong time, and that won’t end.
What is Smile About?
Dr Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, Mare of Easttown) is a psychiatric nurse. Her attempts to comfort a hysterical young woman fails as the woman recoils in terror, before calmly and graphically taking final action.
Her description of an entity plaguing her with wrong smiles shakes Rose, who quickly starts to see the same around her.
What follows is a skilled exercise in generating discomfort. The movie is packed with shots that place the camera face-on to the actors. Each switch between someone speaking is an open invitation for something to change.
For the first half of the movie, certainly, this poised tension is a masterclass in how to keep an audience on edge.
Smile Official Trailer
Is Smile Worth Watching?
Often the most effective tool in a horror film’s toolbox is that of an unrelenting force. However, this does have the drawback of butting up against predictability.
The movie gets great mileage from its inherently creepy concept: a locked-in smile heralds something horrible.
All too often though the release of this tension is the classic jump scare; a loud musical sting, a brief shocking image, and a cut away. You can only do this so many times effectively, and Smile spends its cachet before the third act.
Thankfully, Finn doesn’t just throw nasty smiles at you and walk away whistling. The obligatory ‘investigation’ midsection does drag a little, but an exploration of the lasting effects of trauma as both plot device and subtext is a smart one.
Yet the way this gets weaponised in the script as a potential escape method will be familiar to horror fans who can likely reel off a list of very visible influences; Smile relies on more standard scares than the unforgettably disturbing It Follows.
Gibbering with us through the plague of pearly whites is a commendable performance from Sosie Bacon. The essential remit of such movies is ‘woman losing her mind as no-one believes her’ which she logs effectively.
Trauma as a central theme gives her room to sparkle in the scenes that detail Rose’s historic traumatic experience, and Bacon give such moments a bittersweet pang of hard earned vulnerability.
Smile’s rictus grin lacks the epoch defining moments of its heftier influences. Indeed, its cheeks start to ache before the final act competently puts a bow on everything that’s come before.
Yet thanks to a combination of knockout skin-crawling imagery and excellent scene direction, Smile will send a horrible crawl down your spine whenever you point a camera and whisper shakingly, “say cheese.”
Words by Mike Record
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