For his feature film debut, writer/director Parker Finn has crafted a horror home run with Smile, a deeply unsettling mind-bender that shredded my nerves and left me something of a shell of a human being by the time the end credits rolled around. Not only does Smile feature a star-making performance by Sosie Bacon, but it also highlights just how great Kyle Gallner is, it delivers up several wholly unnerving set pieces, and the way it so effortlessly creeps under your skin and plays with your perceptions is wholly phenomenal. Make no mistake—you will never look at anyone’s facial expressions the same way again after Smile.
In Smile, we’re introduced to a psychologist by the name of Rose Cotter (Bacon). She’s spent her entire life dealing with her own trauma, and Rose uses that pain to motivate her professionally as she looks to help her patients who are dealing with their own mental health issues. One day, Rose interviews a new patient (played by Caitlin Stasey) who tells her a horrifying story about a smiling entity that is relentlessly terrorizing her, pushing her further and further to the brink. From there, things take an ominous turn as Rose begins to feel like there’s something—or someone—always watching over her, and then the horror ramps up once this entity begins to manifest itself in some rather disturbing ways. Rose, unsure of who she can trust, reaches out to an old friend and police detective by the name of Joel (Kyle Gallner), who she hopes can help her put all the puzzle pieces together of this mystery before it's too late for her and anyone else in its path.
While I don’t want to throw on any extra hype (the film is awesome, but I know some fans get leery of “hype”—whatever that means), what I will say is that when I was watching Smile, that experience really reminded me of watching the Nightmare on Elm Street movies when I was growing up, where you never quite knew just exactly what was going to come at you next as the viewer. Building upon the concepts he introduced in his 2020 short Laura Hasn’t Slept, Finn does a frightfully fantastic job of creating a story that’s extremely chilling but also relatable in so many ways, especially considering what our society has been through over the last few years. I don’t want to say too much when it comes to that stuff, because it could potentially reveal certain aspects of Smile’s third act, but I think what makes Finn’s story so successful is how Rose has this ongoing feeling of having just all this heavy stuff hanging over her, but she’s doing her best to get through it, and no matter what she does, it’s just always there.
I think for many of us, trauma is this thing that we conscientiously deal with, but it’s always there in some form in our lives, regardless of how we process it or tell ourselves we’ve moved on. And for me, that’s what made Smile so effective on an emotional level. Beyond that, Finn crafts some really excellent set pieces here. In fact, there was a moment where I actually knew a jump scare was coming, prepared myself, but it still got me anyway because it was that damn good, and that to me is the earmark of a filmmaker who has a great handle on genre storytelling. Kudos to you, Parker Finn.
As far as the performances go, Smile is all about Sosie Bacon, as she’s in practically every single scene in the film. That being said, she is just phenomenal here in her first big feature film role. As a character, Rose is someone you feel like you could have a great conversation with, but also want to look out for at the same time and keep safe from this disturbing presence that just won’t give her character a moment of peace. Bacon brings a great sense of empathy to her performance of Rose that easily draws you in as a viewer. Also, Bacon shares a lot of great moments with Gallner, who’s just as delightful to watch in Smile as he usually is in everything else (here’s my plug for Dinner in America if you haven’t seen that yet), where parts of the film almost feel like a buddy/road movie with their two characters (albeit a very disturbing one), and their chemistry is just off the charts. The rest of the cast is excellent, too, but I wanted to give a shout-out to Finn’s casting of Judy Reyes, who I have adored for decades now because of my love of Scrubs, and I was just so ecstatic to see her in a supporting role in Smile.
While there are elements of Smile that might be tough for some folks to watch (the film does deal with the issues of self-harm and suicide, although technically in the case of suicide, that’s not exactly what is going on in the story), I think that Finn has created one helluva dark and memorable horror feature debut that is sure to have horror fans talking long after the credits roll. The mythology of this entity at the center of its story is extremely well-conceived and Finn’s execution of the horror elements in Smile is wholly disturbing at times and pushes boundaries in all the right ways, especially for a studio horror project. I think that for most of us fans, we have felt like 2022 has constantly spoiled us with an array of fantastic frights on both the big and small screens, and Parker Finn’s Smile is yet another genre effort to contribute to what has been an amazingly killer year for horror as a whole.
Movie Score: 4.5/5