Smile Review: Procedural Horror That Makes Trauma The Antagonist

Written and directed by Parker Finn, Smile personifies trauma and examines its ripple effect and how it connects people, places, and things. The film stars Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, and Kyle Gallner.

The film opens with a woman lying on a mattress. The rummaged bedroom is equipped with liquor bottles, cigarette butts, and pill bottles. The camera pans around the room until it lands on a young child witnessing all of this. Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) wakes up from that dream. She is a psychologist who has patients that are obsessed with death. One patient Rose meets, Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), sees things no one else can see. She says this entity takes the shape of other people, sometimes things, but it always carries a sinister smile. Eventually, the session goes off the rails and ends about as horribly as you would expect it. 

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After this incident, Rose is a nervous wreck, and weird things begin happening. First, it starts with her former patient smiling at her. Then she begins to see random apparitions. She loses control of reality to the point she imagines things that aren’t there. When she tries to communicate her experiences to her husband Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), or her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), she’s told it’s in her head. As Rose searches for answers, she finds a demonic presence that threatens to destroy everything.

When folks are in the throes of depression, they are told things aren’t that bad, or maybe they should smile more, or their experiences are invalid, and no one believes them. There is terror in being gaslighted and dismissed. The film borrows J-Horror elements, particularly the passing of linked trauma. Like The Ring and The Grudge, Smile is about cursed people who have a time limit on life after they witness something they shouldn’t have. 

The scares are compelling enough, but the script relies heavily on them. Without all the jump scares, would Smile have any foundation without them? If one must ask this question, the answer is probably no. However, the film is adept at unraveling information as it’s procedural in execution, almost like a Halloween episode of Law and Order. Each new morsel of information Rose gains adds to hair-raising visuals on screen. 

The characterization is a problem, though. Rose is a doctor who loses all knowledge and sensibility when faced with this thing. She never got an opportunity to put the skills that she has as a psychologist on display throughout the film. Rose is human, so her reaction is normal, but that doesn’t seem wise for this particular story. Also, adding one Black disposable is a tired, cliche horror trope that has got to go. No, as the only character of color, Trevor doesn’t die–he’s just forgotten about, which is worse. The role is so insignificant that it wouldn’t have made a difference if it were cut from the film. He is there to service Rose’s character arc, that’s all. The same goes for Rob Morgan’s character.

The most significant hallmark of Smile isn’t necessarily about the horrors of trauma but what happens when you’re brave enough to address it and things still go wrong. That’s an interesting question to examine in the genre. The marketing campaign certainly built up expectations, but to me, it’s just a good film with some terrific jump moments but not much else. It’s a mixed bag and something I don’t foresee being a part of the pop-culture lexicon in a few years, but it is one of the better scary movies to come out in 2022. 

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