by Hope Madden and George Wolf
Man, It Follows was a great movie. It was a film that saw coming-of-age as its own type of horror, a loss of innocence that you either pass on or let kill you.
It’s a conceit that will never feel as fresh as it did then, but writer/director Parker Finn has a go with Smile.
Sosie Bacon is Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist working in an emergency trauma unit. A woman is brought in, lashed to a gurney and screaming. Rose evaluates her in a safe space where Laura (Caitlin Stasey) can be comfortable, free. Rose listens to her paranoid, anxious story of a smiling, malevolent presence and tells Laura, as calmly as she can, that as scary as these ideas may feel, they can’t harm her.
Rose is wrong. And so begins a very borrowed and yet often powerful meditation on the nature of trauma and the state of mental health stigma.
Bacon delivers a believably brittle performance as the character who knows she’s right, even if everyone believes she’s crazy. But there’s more to this genre trope, given that Finn’s entire theme is an exploration of mental health. As a therapist and also a woman suffering from trauma, Rose can see her current situation more clearly than most.
There’s honesty, depth and empathy at work here, a 360-degree look at mental health and the systems and norms that affect people. Smile is also a clear metaphor for trauma and its insidious ripple effect.
It’s also a showcase for a fine supporting cast, and a few good, if borrowed, jump scares and freaky images. Kyle Gallner is particularly solid, and both Robin Weigert and Rob Morgan deliver traumatizing performances in small roles.
Turning something as inherently harmless as a smile into a threatening gesture carries a primal creepiness that Finn exploits pretty effectively throughout the film. Even so, the nearly two-hour running time feels bloated as Rose’s search for the origins of her curse begins to drag.
Her detective work – plus one very familiar shot – make Smile an easily recognizable marriage of It Follows and The Ring. Credit Finn for not hiding his intentions, and crafting some thought-provoking frights in the process.