‘Smile’ review: Horror in the throes of trauma

Writer-director Parker Finn’s feature debut, Smile, boasts the meager of premises, based on a laundry list of horror film trends and tropes, from historical to contemporary. Expanding on his 2020 short Laura Hasn’t Slept, Finn weaves the newest hot topic in horror – trauma – into a story structured around a chain of killing curses, as seen in films like The Ring, It Follows” and “The Ring” features “She dies tomorrow.” All it takes to pass the curse is a mere smile, but it’s the kind of chin-down, eyes-up grin that’s a bit wide more sneaky than friendly.

That’s pretty much the movie, but Finn spices it up with dizzying cinematography by Charlie Sarroff, a hauntingly effective score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, and a believably twitching leading lady by Sosie Bacon. Oh, and jump scares, lots of jump scares.

Back in 1942, horror producer Val Lewton pioneered what is now known as the “Lewton Bus” in the film “Cat People.” If you’ve ever seen a horror movie, you’ll know it: a moment of slow suspense building, culminating in a screeching noise from a source that turns out to be harmless but still sends the popcorn flying – a ringing phone, one Home alarm system, the brakes on a bus. It’s a technique that Finn abuses liberally in “Smile,” almost to comedic effect.

With the way “Smile” takes trauma so literally as a source of horror, one wonders if Finn is spearheading the trend of attributing all meaning in horror films to “It’s about trauma” (see: every interview in the original Final Girl Jamie Lee Curtis has been covering the “Halloween” franchise for the last few years). The lead character in “Smile,” Rose Cotter (Bacon), is a therapist who captures the curse of a young woman (Caitlin Stasey) mired in a debilitating mental crisis after witnessing a suicide. The killing curse is like contagious PTSD: Anyone who witnesses the suicide of the person being forced to commit suicide by this “evil spirit” catches the curse and must pass it on.

Finn keeps skipping a line on “Smile,” leaving us wondering if the movie is just stupid or so stupid it loops back to Smart. Finn casts Robin Weigert, the paragon of therapists (see: “Big Little Lies”), as Rose’s own therapist, speaking to her in soothing, provocative tones that eventually take on a menacing quality. As Finn delves into the childhood trauma Rose is yet to come to terms with, it’s visualized and rendered so literally it’s ridiculous. But does “Smile” smile with us when we laugh at the open dialogues, images and topics? That is the biggest question when determining its quality.

Ultimately, that we never really know the answer to that question, and that the ending settles for a possible sequel that betrays the film’s own inner logic, shows that “Smile” doesn’t quite live up to the joke, or at least is willing to to show that it is so. However, Bacon’s performance, as well as Finn’s detailed craft, manage to keep the audience’s suspense and attention through the nearly two-hour running time of this horror oddity, which is as opaque and slightly goofy as the smile that drives it.

Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News Service.

‘To smile’

Duration: 1 hour 55 minutes

Rated: R, for strong violent content and gruesome imagery and language

To play: In theaters September 30th

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-29/review-is-horror-movie-smile-so-dumb-that-its-actually-smart-who-knows ‘Smile’ review: Horror in the throes of trauma

Sarah Ridley

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