By Brendan Graham
We all have trauma that we carry around with us every day, some of it may not be as extreme as others, but there is usually something that weighs heavily on our conscience and shoulders. Horror movies have long used our traumas and fears against us, and in some ways, they often help us face these traumatic episodes for maybe a bit of closure, or as a way for us to just “grin and bear it” and move on. In the case of SMILE, however, the grin is what we must fear. Be ready for a darker tone, roller coaster of thrills that isn’t afraid to play mean, but it does get a little messy towards the end. Be ready for a combination of It Follows and The Ring, with a little Final Destination thrown in for a bit of extra flavor.
In SMILE, we are introduced to Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) who works in the emergency mental health ward at a hospital. She works long days, and long nights because she truly cares for her patients. Before she can head home this particular day, she decides to stay and answer an emergency situation with a young woman who had witnessed an upsetting event earlier in the week and is now claiming to see something horrible. Rose tries to talk this patient down, explaining that what she fears isn’t real. Before she knows it, the patient is on the ground, struggling to breathe, and Rose calls for help, but when she turns around the patient is acting differently and that’s when Rose’s nightmarish scenario begins. Now, something horrible is stalking and tormenting Rose, something that is always smiling. No one believes her, except for her ex-love interest Joel (Kyle Gallner) who is at least willing to hear her out. With her whole life crumbling around her, and the presence of this thing becoming stronger, Rose needs to figure out how to escape before she’s next.
Based on the marketing of the movie, I thought SMILE would be a cheesy, cheap jump scare fest that was piggybacking off the slightly creepy but goofy vibes of films like Truth or Dare (those big smiles mainly). However, I always go into a movie with fair expectations, because I know that sometimes movies can surprise you and I’m happy to say that I was more than pleasantly surprised with this one. SMILE is an enjoyable experience because it’s not afraid to get aggressive with the audience but also retains a sense of fun. The theme of the film is incredibly dark, but it doesn’t always revel in it to the point of despair. The movie absolutely knows its premise is ridiculous on paper, and it doesn’t care! It runs with it and slaps the audience with some of the best jumps scares I’ve seen in a film in a long time. Not talking cheap ones either, well-crafted sequences of tension with payouts that sent audiences in my early screening flying out of their seats and laughing for minutes afterward. The whole theater was having a great time. I'm a big fan of movies that have curses that are passed down from person to person, so naturally, SMILE will be joining my yearly viewing list for that reason especially.
The acting was well above average for a horror film too, with very strong performances from both Sosie Bacon and Kyle Gallner. Bacon isn’t afraid to wear her emotions on her sleeve and is genuinely convincing during her emotional breakdowns and her depiction of a woman who is genuinely terrified, she’s really good. Gallner has always been a favorite of mine, and I was really happy he got his chance to shine in this one being both charming and funny. I’m also really impressed with all of the supporting cast, especially the ‘Smilers’ because they are actually scary, which was incredibly important to pull off for this film to work. If I had any real critiques about the movie, I’d say the pacing in the middle drags a bit in the middle, there feels like there are some scenes that could have easily been trimmed a bit in the editing room. I also feel like some of the reveals towards the end are not nearly strong enough to carry the momentum of what came before, but it wasn’t enough to deter my overall enjoyment.
Some viewer warnings are in order as well, I won’t be dabbling in sharing any spoilers, but you should probably be aware of a few things. The topic of suicide is very strong in the movie, and luckily it’s not just played as a bad plot device. It handles these topics of mental illness and depression quite well and thoughtfully, but believe me when I say that this film is pretty dark in tone. For those that are photosensitive, the title after the first scene does flashlights for a bit, so be a bit cautious there. There is another upsetting scene that I can’t mention because of spoilers, but those sensitive to scenes involving animals should also be prepared.
SMILE was an absolutely pleasant surprise. It’s been a while since I’ve had that much fun during a movie screening. The audience reactions, the great acting, fun surprises, and aggressive scares should be enough to satisfy most horror audiences. Get some friends together and have a scary good time with SMILE.