Writer/director Parker Finn’s SMILE had my number from the get-go and appears to have been reading my diary. My very first kindertrauma involved haunting smiles (SATAN’S TRIANGLE (‘75)) and multiple freaky grimaces have haunted my psyche ever since (the ending of TV-movie DON’T GO TO SLEEP (‘82) is particularly culpable). Everything about SMILE from its sterile psychiatric setting, rampant paranoia, discombobulated protagonist (a flawless Sosie Bacon), aversion toward the familial, and trauma-fueled denouement was singing my name (albeit through clenched teeth). Remarkably though, SMILE went and pushed me even further than I was prepared to go. This is a horror movie that is not afraid to take the gloves (braces?) off, shelve subtlety, and roar directly in your face. I would never give away the multitude of surprises this flick has rolled up its sleeve but suffice to say, my jaw hit the popcorn-covered floor on more than a few occasions.
Well meaning psychiatrist Rose Cotter (Bacon) attempts to help a student who recently witnessed her professor beat himself to death with a hammer. Since the incident, the poor girl claims to have been haunted by a free-floating malignant entity that threatens to kill her and reveals itself by somehow entering random people and creepily smiling. Rose is of course skeptical until the student freaks out and commits suicide in front of her, basically announcing, “Tag! You’re it!” Now Rose is seeing super shady smiling people everywhere, receiving phone calls from beyond, and destroying all her professional and romantic relationships by acting like an absolute lunatic. It’s clear she has to find a way to break the curse she’s under soon or she will be the next person to die horribly and pass the supernatural cootie on. All this may sound familiar to fans of THE RING and IT FOLLOWS but SMILE offers a disquieting downward spiral all its own. Once Rose’s life is upended by the unknown force, the whole world seems to change around her and the alienation and profound paranoia she feels is palpable.
SMILE is beautifully done. Finn’s direction is superb and there’s always something going on visually to back up Rose’s sudden estrangement with her once familiar world (I was reminded of Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (‘78) on several occasions). The score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is like nothing you’ve ever heard before and does wonders enhancing the film’s off-kilter atmosphere. The acting too is spot on; Sosie Bacon makes you believe the impossible and fearlessly disassembles herself piece by piece on screen. Scary, thrilling, and with a moving undercurrent that urges you to let go of guilt from the past, SMILE is everything I hoped it would be and substantially more.