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Film Review: This Imperfect “Smile” Still Creeps You Out

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 29th, 2022

Film poster: “Smile”

Smile (Parker Finn, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Though horror is not my favorite genre, it can nevertheless be quite an innovative one, pushing the boundaries of convention and employing a variety of techniques to frighten viewers. I especially enjoy when horror is combined with something like sci-fi, such as the 1979 Alien or the 2022 Nope. Perhaps that’s why supernatural horror films are those most likely to win me over, given their fantastical elements. The new movie Smile, from writer/director Parker Finn, making his feature debut, is of this kind, and though filled with derivative elements still manages to entertain.

Just do your best to avoid being a witness to suicide. For that’s how the trauma begins. Protagonist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, Carrie Layden on HBO’s Mare of Easttown series), an overworked hospital psychiatrist, makes the fatal mistake of seeing one last patient before heading home. That would be a seemingly very disturbed young graduate student, Laura (Caitlin Stasey, Kindred Spirits), who recently saw her dissertation advisor bludgeon himself to death in front of her. Now, Laura says she senses a malevolent presence stalking her, manifesting itself via menacing smiles on the faces of passers-by.

Sosie Bacon in SMILE ©Paramount Pictures

Suddenly, Laura screams and backs up against the wall. Rose races to the phone, calling for help. The room goes silent, and when Rose’s eyes alight upon Laura, that once-frightened woman is now grinning at her and keeps smiling as she brings a shard of a broken flowerpot up to her throat, which she slowly slits. Rose collapses in shock. Tag. She’s it.

Being a doctor and therefore a person of science, Rose is not inclined to accept Laura’s explanation of events, yet she has to admit that the smiling faces that begin to pop up are hard to reason away. So she does what scientists do best and starts to research the chain of suicides that led to Laura and now, possibly, to Rose.

Caitlin Stasey in SMILE ©Paramount Pictures

Unfortunately, who in her life will believe her? Certainly not Trevor (Jessie T. Usher, A-Train on Amazon’s The Boys series), her shallow fiancé; nor Holly (Gillian Zinser, Two Wrongs), her equally superficial sister; and not even Dr. Morgan Desai (Kal Penn, of Harold & Kumar fame), her friendly boss. Who would swallow such a tale? Perhaps her ex, Joel (Kyle Gallner, The Cleansing Hour). Conveniently, he’s a cop, and so can offer some real help with the investigation.

To the film’s credit, it keeps us guessing as to what type of ending it will deliver, never quite tipping its hand. On the minus side, there are far too many false scares of the dreaming variety, each of which further discredits the next one. Finn also overdoes his camera work (though his distressingly centered compositions are nice), layering each shot with so much portent that the subtext is made text. And do we really need to see yet another use of an animal death as a grisly surprise? Given the obvious foreshadowing of earlier scenes, that moment isn’t even frightening, but merely gross and very disappointing.

Kal Penn in SMILE ©Paramount Pictures

Bacon is terrific, as is Robin Weigert (New Money), who shows up halfway through as a therapist to the therapist. The script mostly works, though it spends a lot of time on Rose’s childhood backstory, which has little bearing on why she was chosen by the evil spirit and on how her fate plays out. Whatever the limitations of the narrative, however, it has the enduring virtue of being truly creepy. I’ll never look at smiling faces the same again.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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