Some might see the three star rating sitting atop this review and think, “Oh, I guess he didn’t like it that much.” But I want to be clear, I have a lot of admiration for this film. The scares are effective, Parker Finn is a good director, and this film’s success is good for the industry. When a movie like Smile tops the box office in multiple weeks, that opens the door for more original projects from new voices. All that being said, I can’t help but feel Smile isn’t living up to its full potential.
Smile began life as a short film, “Laura Hasn’t Slept” by independent writer/director Parker Finn. The making of “Laura Hasn’t Slept” is the classic story of a brave filmmaker scraping together every resource they have, maxing out credit cards, and swinging for the fences. And it worked! I’ve watched “Laura Hasn’t Slept” and it’s a good short. Caitlin Stasey gives a compelling performance as Laura (a character who’s also in Smile), the aesthetics are good, and the scares work.
My issue with both the short and the feature is the concept. Both the short and feature use ideas that have already been done better in preexisting works. In Laura Hasn’t Slept we have a distressed young woman named Laura describing an evil entity in her dreams to her therapist. The evil entity wears different faces but she can always tell it’s the entity because of his eyes. The twist at the end of the 11 minute short SPOILER: The therapist is the evil entity.
Underneath its mask, “Laura Hasn’t Slept” is Stephen King’s 1980 short story “The Boogeyman”. Both stories are about a traumatized person spilling their guts about something evil to the very thing responsible for that traumatization. What’s also weird is “The Boogeyman” is being developed as a film for Hulu in 2023.
In Smile, the premise is a curse that goes from person-to-person via witnessing suicides. Meaning you get taken over, you become haunted by a smiling entity that takes the form of numerous people (some you even know), you are driven to suicide, and whoever witnesses your suicide then becomes cursed.
Smile is It Follows with less rules. If you don’t know the premise to It Follows here it is: A curse/haunting is passed from person to person via sexual intercourse, the infected person is then followed by an evil entity that takes the form of numerous people (some they even know) until it catches up with them and kills them.
I’m not opposed to both films having the same concept. What bothers me is that Smile is missing key components that make It Follows work. Those being, “How does the entity catch you?” And “Why does it wait as long as it does?” This could have been fixed with some The Ring logic. Where you have exactly seven days and the entity materializes and possesses you on the seventh day. But Smile goes out of its way to say some people die in a week, some four days. You know, whenever.
Why does the time it takes to die fluctuate? My only guess is that the evil entity is trying to drive you to suicide (with jump scares and hallucinations), so some people snap earlier than others. SPOILER’S AHEAD!: What ruins this theory is the fact that our lead, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) seemingly overcomes her personal issues at the end of the film but is still taken over by the entity. Was she not mentally strong enough? Did she not actually overcome the grief she held from a past childhood trauma?
My issues with the evil entity in Smile remind me of my issues with Pennywise in Stephen King’s It. Why doesn’t Pennywise immediately eat every kid he meets upon first encounter? If I recall, the book explains that fear that grows in the child overtime makes them taste better. I don’t know, man. I feel like you’d be the most scared seeing a killer clown the first time you see it.
Both Pennywise and the evil entity in Smile seem to toy with their victims for no other reason than because “the story needs to happen” but Pennywise in It had the armor of being the first prominent killer clown story in the media. Smile isn’t the first infectious curse movie.
It Follows isn’t the first infectious curse movie either but we know that all the evil entity needs to do is catch you. That’s what makes the idea so scary. You can run, but not forever. You can imagine if you were infected by the It Follows curse. You can picture what strategies you might take to avoid the curse from catching up with you.
In Smile the evil entity just kind of appears in front of you at seemingly random moments until eventually you can’t take it. I do applaud the film for later developing a strategy to rid yourself of the curse, but apart from that the rules of what the entity can and can’t do are too ill defined for the idea to really resonate. That being said, it’s still a fun and scary movie. I only harp on it because I see the potential for a better film. Anyways, I should probably talk about what actually happens in the film, huh?
Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick), plays Psychiatrist Dr. Rose Cotter, who works in a psychiatric ward. Early on, we learn that Rose suffered a tragedy when she refused to call 911 before her drug-addled mother died from an overdose. Rose suffers another tragedy when a frightened new patient, Laura (Caitlin Stassey from the short), tells rose that an evil smiling entity that only she can see is after her.
Before Rose can alert hospital staff, Laura is consumed by the entity, smiles, and then kills herself with a shard of broken glass. It’s a promising setup. The performances are great all around the board. I’d never heard of Sosie Bacon but I see a bright future ahead. Not for Rose though.
Not long after, Rose is stalked by the smiling entity in the shape of Laura. It’s your usual jump-scare fare: character looks close at something or in a specific direction and then when they look away the smiling entity is beside them. Most of it works. Though I’m not a huge fan of horror movies that depend too heavily on hallucination. It feels like a horror movie cheat code to advance the plot. Regardless, it’s fun so I don’t dock it too much for that.
The film’s best set piece comes when a rattled Rose attends her nephew’s birthday party. Rose has spent the previous night looking everywhere for her missing cat Mustache. We see her buy a toy train for her nephew’s birthday but when the moment comes we find that Rose in some kind of fugue state has instead wrapped up her dead cat and presented it to her nephew. The scene is embarrassing and terrifying at the same time. It’s super effective. It’s the best sequence in the movie.
At a certain point, Rose starts to investigate the curse. She learns that Laura became cursed after she saw her professor kill himself, and the professor was cursed after he saw a colleague kill herself. Rose works with her old flame, Joel (Kyle Gallner), a detective, as the two discover there is one way to break the curse. They discover that a man in jail (Rob Morgan) broke the curse by killing someone. Which passed the curse onto the person that witnessed that murder.
The murder revelation is a clever angle to the story. It’s still not as good as the It Follows curse. Because in that film even after you pass it on the curse can revert back to you if the person you give it to dies. But I do like that there is an attempt to differentiate. I also like that the film decides to never reveal the origin of the curse. You know whatever answer they give wouldn’t be as compelling as the mystery.
The middle of Smile is where the film works best. Whereas most horror movies drag in the second act, Smile is at its best in the midsection when Rose and Joel are collecting clues and trying to solve the unsolvable. Some of the best scares happen in the second act as well. Like the memorable upside down head spin from the trailer. It gets me every time.
The third act of Smile, while visually compelling, feels lacking. The script writes itself into a corner and stays there. Rose goes back to her childhood home in the woods under the assumption that if she stays there and avoids people, the curse can’t pass itself on. Rose confronts the entity in the form of her mother (just like how in It Follows the entity’s final form is the main girl’s father), seemingly overcomes her guilt, and burns the entity to death. I don’t think anyone buys this fake out of a resolution.
This scene is followed by Rose coming back to Joel only for her to realize she’s hallucinating and is still back at the cabin. Rose is again confronted by the entity as it takes the shape of a skinless giant with multiple rows of teeth. A spectacular effect that gives us one of the best looking movie monsters I’ve seen in awhile. The monster crawls into Rose’s mouth and we learn this is how it gets inside of you. Why now? I don’t know.
Joel shows up a little too late… or maybe right on time? 😉 as Rose smiles at him and lights herself on fire. We watch her burn in the reflection of Joel’s eyes as he comes to the realization that he is now cursed as well. Uh oh!
I think the better ending would be if Rose had killed someone, maybe not even intentionally and then someone from afar witnesses it. She would try to warn them but couldn’t. I think Rose needs to have some kind of win. Even if it’s bittersweet. Overcoming her trauma isn’t enough. We don’t know if she did overcome her trauma considering she gets overtaken by the entity not long after. We spend too much time with this character for her story to end with a, “I guess it’s hopeless no matter how hard you try.”
Narrative complaints aside, I had a good time seeing Smile in the theater. I think Parker Finn is a fresh and exciting voice in the genre and hope his success leads to other filmmakers getting the opportunity to make shorts that are turned into features. It worked for Andy Muschietti (Mama) and David Sandberg (Lights Out) too. If this trend continues, indie filmmakers will have plenty to smile about. 🙂