Rejoice! For spooky season is upon us once again. Last year’s annual cinematic celebration of the macabre was kicked off by a new offering in the horror canon, Smile. A creepy trailer accompanied by a clever viral marketing campaign that saw random people eerily smiling in public venues such as sporting events helped catapult Smile toward box office success. The humble $70 million budget translated to over $200 million at the international box office, helping it become one of 2022’s most surprising financial success stories.
A year later, we decided to look back at the creepy phenomenon. With Smile, director and writer Parker Finn expands on the unsettling examination of trauma he first explored with his short film Laura Hasn’t Slept.
Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a therapist who witnesses the suicide of seemingly delusional patient Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey). Before dying by suicide, Laura makes some unsettling claims of eerie visions that have plagued her since witnessing someone else’s trauma. Rose initially dismisses the supernatural claims until she begins to experience the same visions Weaver had warned her about.
Smile is clear in its purpose of examining the effects that trauma (in the film case related to witnessing suicide) can have on an individual and their relationships. Rose had previously experienced her own traumatic experiences as a child. The movie emphasizes the inherent dangers of not facing said traumas before it’s too late. Smile makes clear that trauma survives and feeds on anguish. Putting on a smile and pretending everything will be okay can and most likely result in dire consequences. Furthermore, we see how these unresolved issues have a devastating effect on not only Rose but her relationship with loved ones as well, specifically her fiancé Trevor (Jesse T. Usher) and her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser).
Using a pleasing and inviting facial expression as a ploy for horror has nefarious intentions. Artistically and cinematically, this is not the first time smiles have been used for sinister purposes. The Man Who Laughs from 1928 brought to life the Victor Hugo novel, which uses smiles to symbolize despair. Years later, this would inspire the creation of DC supervillain Joker, a character that does not quite get its due as a true creation of horror. Smile also borrows heavily from horror classics such as The Ring or It Follows, making it not as original as it would like audiences to believe.
However, Smile metaphorically uses the titular facial expression as a mask to hide the trauma-associated pain. The elements for differentiating itself or for at least joining other recent horror classics associated with similar anguishes, such as Hereditary or The Babadook, are present. Yet, unfortunately, Smile falls short of properly distinguishing and elevating itself.
The bookends abound with plenty of harrowing imagery. And the performances are mostly solid. Those employed to flash creepy smiles earn their paycheck. However, Smile is a one-woman vehicle that Bacon tries her darndest to drive along the veering road the movie puts her on. She carries the movie from beginning to end, winning the audience’s sympathy along the way, regardless of what way that might be.
Smile mostly plays like a crime mystery. As Rose’s visions become more frequent and distressing, she seeks out the help of her ex-boyfriend, Detective Joel (Kyle Gallner), to investigate the similarities between her situation and others. They discover an unsettling chain of events that threatens Rose in the worst way she could have imagined. She is left with no other option but to face her trauma head-on. Interspersed are the obligatory jump scares and one or two unnerving scenes that were mostly spoiled by the trailer. The film inexplicably veers from its initial disturbing path, causing the return to terror to land flat.
The best horror movies seer unsettling imagery in audiences’ minds. No more sticking heads out car windows; good luck not seeing ominous figures by the coat rack. Smile’s legacy will be more associated with its brilliant marketing campaign that brought people to theaters, only to leave them with some jump scares and much disappointment for what could have been.