Theatrical Release: September 30, 2022 / Running Time: 115 Minutes / Rating: R
Director: Parker Finn / Writer: Parker Finn (screenplay & short Laura Hasn't Slept)
Cast: Sosie Bacon (Dr. Rose Cotter), Kyle Gallner (Joel), Caitlin Stasey (Laura Weaver), Jessie T. Usher (Trevor), Rob Morgan (Robert Talley), Kal Penn (Dr. Morgan Desai), Robin Weigert (Dr. Madeline Northcott), Judy Reyes (Victoria Munoz), Gillian Zinzser (Holly), Dora Kiss (Mom), Kevin Keppy (Nightmare Mom), Nick Arapoglou (Greg), Sara Kapner (Stephanie), Jack Sochet (Carl Renken)
Can a smile be scary? Absolutely, in the right context. Smile, a new horror film from first-time writer-director Parker Finn lacks the right context.
Despite the title and the marketing campaign's focus, discomforting smiles are but a small part of this gruesome thriller that proves to be flimsy and amateurish.
Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a young and compassionate psychologist, has to observe an apparently delusional young woman (Caitlin Stasey) who insists she is being tormented by an evil presence that takes on the appearance of loved ones and strangers alike, unsettling her with their pained smiles and assorted mayhem. She's not crazy, she insists before she kills herself in brutal fashion, wearing a blank, motionless smile in the process.
The experience shakes up Rose, who begins seeing similar phenomena and alarms people in her life with her sudden erratic behavior. Those people include the world's least convincing fiancee (Jessie T. Usher), a mustachioed ex on the police force (Kyle Gallner), an annoying sister (Gillian Zinser), and an unfriendly therapist (Robin Weigert). Looking deeper into the case of her deceased patient and the trauma she herself experiences in the aftermath, Rose thinks she might have answers, but her efforts to get them turns just about everyone against her.
I found Smile to be highly unlikable. The problems start at the top, with a protagonist who is difficult to sympathize with. A horror movie heroine must only be endearing enough for us to not want them to die. Rose somehow never comes close to clearing that low bar, leading you to suspect Bacon's last name got her this part (yes, her dad is Kevin). The supporting cast is no more at ease with the material and anytime someone familiar pops up (like Kal Penn, Kumar of Harold & Kumar and "Scrubs" alumnus Judy Reyes), you can't help but cringe and wish things were going better for them.
Part of me doesn't want to rag too hard on Smile, the rare horror film that isn't a remake or a sequel or a copycat. (It is based on Finn's own 2020 short film Laura Hasn't Slept.) But any goodwill earned by the originality is lost in the execution, which sees the overlong narrative flounder in the unsteady hands of the cast and the novice director who can't turn some compelling cinematography by Charlie Sarroff into anything more. It is so frustrating to tag along with Rose as she runs into the old "nobody believes me" scenario again and again and again. Even the movie seems to doubt her increasingly plausible conclusions, as it stumbles to make some kind of point about the stigmas associated with mental health issues.
If it was scary or suspenseful, you'd be able to forgive many or most of Smile's shortcomings. But even when it's borrowing beats from The Ring and dipping its toes into the rich subgenre of investigative horror, the movie remains dull and crude, hoping that jump scares will disarm from the various creative shortcomings. And judging from the early reaction from moviegoers, many might find this an adequate bit of mid-budget, big studio horror. I, on the other hand, found it to be among the most unfulfilling releases of 2022 to date.
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Reviewed October 5, 2022.
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