When reflecting on the horror films of the 2010s, one cannot ignore the prevalence of trauma metaphors. Joining the ranks of these psychologically intense movies is Paramount’s latest wide-release horror film, “Smile.”
However, what sets “Smile” apart is its unique approach—here, the monster is not just a metaphor but a tangible entity that feeds on and spreads through trauma. In this review, we will delve into the film’s intriguing premise, explore its thematic depth, and assess its execution as a supernatural horror-mystery.
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A Dark Tale Unveiled
“Smile” centers around Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a psychiatrist haunted by a mysterious presence. This entity specifically targets those who have witnessed gruesome suicides, manifesting itself as a malevolent force that feeds on their trauma.
The film introduces us to Laura (Caitlin Stasey), a PhD student who shares her harrowing encounter with the entity before ultimately taking her own life. This chilling event deeply disturbs Rose, as it dredges up the trauma of her own mother’s suicide.
The exploration of Rose’s personal fears and the stigmatization surrounding mental illness forms a thought-provoking thematic thread throughout the movie.
An Internal Battle: Supernatural or Neurochemical?
Rose’s fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), acknowledges his online research on inherited mental illness, revealing the prevailing negative attitudes towards the mentally ill in society. Throughout the film, derogatory terms like “nutjobs” and “crazies” are used to describe individuals struggling with mental health.
As the story progresses, Rose grapples with the possibility that her experiences might be internally driven rather than a result of an external curse. This internal struggle to confront her own neurochemical imbalances, hallucinations, and emotional volatility adds depth to Rose’s character and highlights the significance of addressing mental health issues beyond supernatural explanations.
Belief and Redemption: The Journey Unfolds
Among the skeptical characters surrounding Rose, her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), a police officer assigned to Laura’s case, is the only one who believes her claims. Their reconnection reignites their search for the truth behind the malevolent entity, leading them on a mysterious journey.
“Smile” successfully embraces the elements of a supernatural horror-mystery, unfolding a captivating storyline that keeps viewers engaged throughout its 115-minute runtime. From a Google search to face-to-face interviews with incarcerated survivors, the film skillfully navigates the genre’s conventions, building tension and delivering intriguing twists.
The Unrelenting Grimness: A Harrowing Atmosphere
One of “Smile’s” greatest strengths lies in its relentless and oppressive atmosphere of darkness. The film fearlessly exposes the vulnerability of both adults and innocent beings, sparing no one from the horrors that unfold.
The bloody and disturbing nature of the horror elements aptly matches the film’s dark thematic content. Sosie Bacon’s portrayal of Rose, with her shaky vulnerability, adds a layer of authenticity to the character.
Moments like Rose’s outburst to Trevor, followed by a mumbled apology and an ashamed gaze towards her shoes, effectively convey the inner turmoil experienced by individuals battling mental health issues. Such scenes allow viewers who have experienced similar struggles to relate to the character on a personal level.
Familiar Themes and Missed Opportunities
Regrettably, despite its compelling lead performance and strong technical execution, “Smile” falls short in terms of originality.
Director Parker Finn, making his debut as a writer and director with this film, expands on an 11-minute short that garnered attention at SXSW 2020.
While the achievement of turning it into a full-length, non-franchise film within two years is commendable, “Smile” leans heavily on formulaic mystery plotting and draws inspiration from popular horror hits like “The Ring” and “It Follows.” The influence of David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” is particularly evident, and although the film explores trauma, it fails to break the mold and offer a truly groundbreaking experience.
However, Finn showcases his talent as a horror director, crafting well-executed jump scares and maintaining a consistently unsettling atmosphere.
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“Smile” brings a fresh take on horror by transforming trauma into a tangible entity that preys on its victims. The film delves into the psychological depths of its characters, addressing the stigma surrounding mental health and inherited illnesses.
Although “Smile” occasionally succumbs to familiar horror tropes and fails to fully embrace its potential for originality, it remains a chilling and thought-provoking watch.
Director Parker Finn showcases his skills as a horror filmmaker, leaving viewers with a lingering sense of unease. While “Smile” may not be the groundbreaking horror film some anticipated, it successfully delivers an unsettling experience that explores the lasting impact of trauma on the human psyche.