In modern cinematic times, the trauma plot has taken on a genre of its own. The main protagonist understanding and escaping past events that have stuck with them to the timeframe of their film seems almost traditional at this point with how frequently it seems to permeate storytelling in this climate. It makes sense given the social and political age the world finds itself in in 2022 as communities strive to reckon and right the wrongs of their past. Smile attempts to bring this notion down to a more personal level, and in a way, this freakout, elevated horror-adjacent flick successfully works in many of the tropes and motifs buried within its close contemporaries (It Follows and The Ring have been commonly quoted as natural inspirations), but at this same time it’s hard not to feel like Smile relishes in this narrative more than actually pushing its boundaries.
When Dr. Rose Cotter witnesses a horrific and traumatizing incident involving one of her therapy patients, she begins to experience unsettling and frightening daily occurrences that begin to take over her life. To escape the horror to come, she must confront and reckon with her past experiences. What she eventually opposes is something much more sinister and darker.
Few genres are operating as successfully and robustly as horror these past few years. Its presence at the box office has been felt (Nope, The Black Phone, Barbarian and others have all showed some long-lasting legs with ticket sales) and the success of horror-minded streaming services like Shudder leave the film sub-culture continuously craving the next big blockbuster or franchise-starting hit. With the spookiest month of the year just around the corner, Paramount Pictures has positioned Smile to be one of the big players at the box office for the upcoming month, hoping that it can capitalize on the thirst for new scares.
And Smile certainly delivers on these scares. While jump-scares fall towards the bottom of my totem pole of effective and gnarly horror, Smile is sure to garner a bit of press and word-of-mouth from the frightening imagery it poses alone. Its incredibly precise and original sound design is particularly eerie and worthy of some recognition due to its ability to always keep the observer on edge, even in the brightest and calmest of moments, there’s always something around the corner in Smile. It never eases up the tension and always builds and builds and builds until its heart-pounding, gonzo ending.
Many of these filmmaking techniques are effective and useful – there is not a moment of this film (visually speaking) that feels cheap. While its premise and script should be destined for a streaming service release, it is the visual flourishes and sound design that take over from the jump. They save a film with a lot of muddy and questionable choices that are important to dive into – ones that inevitably keep the cast and crew from reaching their full potential.
Smile’s script is downright laughable at times. It boils many of horror’s biggest detracting variables into one big melting pot, and while many contemporary (and better) horror films have successfully critiqued and subverted narrative beats that plagued their predecessors, Smile just falls victim to them. The “nobody believes the main protagonist” narrative structure feels cliché at this point but Smile bathes in it from the middle of the first act. When it feels like the film could rebound from a typical, run of the mill opening 30 minutes, perhaps the most ridiculous and off-putting birthday party sequence kicks this generic horror film into a high gear that I didn’t want to see.
Its finale left me both (once again) visually pleased and slightly confused, as if the filmmaker was rejecting his own premise that he spent nearly two hours setting up the building blocks for. There are a few genuinely brilliant and jaw-dropping shots involving an individual set ablaze, but I couldn’t help but feel these moments were at the expense of the first two (not very good) acts convincing an audience that overcoming trauma and dealing with past experiences were possible.
While Smile delivers on a couple creative and freaky scares, it ultimately falls apart with a prototypical first hour and a generally confusing second one. It certainly isn’t a bad film, but I left the theater wondering if it was made with the sole purpose of exploiting its marketing tagline for months on end.
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