How many times throughout your life would you say something has told you that “acting” happy solves sadness? Probably more times than you can count. It’s a sad fact that many of us walk about our days flaunting a grin while we carry an anchor of grief inside the pits of our stomachs. Fake it until you make it. Well, that non-acknowledgment and societal inclination to push forward can be dangerous. This is how writer/director Parker Finn depicts the weight of grief in Smile. You can run from it or try to push it down into the deep corners of your mind — it will always find a way back, like a man in a hockey mask annually drawn to a summer camp.
Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is very committed to her work as a therapist — so much so that her boss, Dr. Morgan Desai (Kal Penn), will take some time off. Rose has her heart in the right place, however. She’s an advocate for her patients, which many people would dismiss as “crazy” or other words people use to dismiss those struggling mentally. But with one visit from a young girl, all of that changes. Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey) tells Rose about an entity she sees that nobody else can. It appears in other people and constantly flashes a macabre smile at her. Well, things take an ominous tone for Laura while Rose has to witness it all in front of her.
Is there a terrifying, Chelsea smile-tinged curse that seems to stalk people until they die? That’s left to be up to interpretation. This idea of things we can’t explain being attached to us has been in horror stories. The Ring has a seven-day deadline if you’ve watched the cursed tape. It Follows chronicles a supernatural presence mowing down young people after sexual intercourse. While these films serve as an inspirational jumping-off point, there’s something eerily relevant to how Finn depicts trauma and depression.
After Laura’s experience, her mental state deteriorates as she experiences the same phenomenon. Much credit to the acting prowess of Bacon here because she displays the full array of emotions. When Rose goes to her finance, Joel (Jessie T. Usher), he quickly dismisses her and even references Laura’s prior family history. The deep dark secret Rose is carrying (and that her sister, Holly, played by Gillian Zinser, is trying to move past) is that their mother committed suicide when they were very young. Rose was left behind to see her mother slowly fall into a shell of who she was.
While Smile has an abundance of classic horror jump scares, which are most effective during the earlier part of the film — the scariest part is the depiction of forced solitude with depression. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s musical score uses many electronic, ambient sounds acting as its own character to heighten the anxiety of most scenes. The cinematography of Mike Gioulakis often goes upside down in wide shots to chronicle the distorted point of view Rose is viewing things from. Smile‘s pacing grabs you and never lets go, showing how isolating mania can be. There’s a ironic cruelty given Rose’s perfection, seeing that nobody takes her seriously.
When Rose goes to her ex-boyfriend and police officer Joel (Kyle Gallner) for a helping hand, the film dives into the conventional “we have to find the origins of the evil” search. This is where the writing of Finn comes in — electing to make Smile‘s most definitive statement. Trauma is not something you beat like the final boss at the end of a video game. Mental health is a practice you have to keep refining every single day. The bad experiences that shape us might pop up every once in a while to remind you of their presence.
With previous horror lore, people have taken down the likes of Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers — but what do you do when there’s no talisman or special incantation to beat back the evil thing that’s stalking you? While the attempts to overly scare you may seem excessive, that question will have your mind in knots.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures