By Ben Konuch
“It’s… it’s like it wears people’s faces as masks.”
(“Smile” contains themes and depictions of trauma and suicide. Viewer and reader discretion is advised.)
At a first glance, it would be very easy to pass by “Smile” without much thought. From all of its marketing, the film comes off as one of those “gimmick horror” movies. Movies like ‘Wish Upon’ or ‘Truth or Dare’ capitalize off a concept or object that typically isn’t scary, like a music box or a party game, and deliver the twist of “But what if it was evil!”
From the marketing you could easily think that “Smile” falls into this category, using the premise of unsettling people smiling creepily as its gimmick to beat to death through cheap jumpscares and mediocre writing, but ‘Smile’ is far, far more. It isn’t just a scary film but also manages to be a thought-provoking commentary on serious topics that have real-world significance as well as working fantastically as a slow-burn horror.
‘Smile’ follows Rose (Sosie Bacon), a psychiatrist working for a hospital emergency room who is called in to treat a supposedly psychotic new patient. This patient is a young Ph.D. student who claims that something is following her, something that no one else can see, something that looks like other people but isn’t anyone at all.
As Rose tries to get to the bottom of this patient’s diagnosis, the young woman becomes hysterical and then turns eerily calm. What happens next is a horrible, heartbreaking act of suicide that etches itself into Rose’s mind not just because of how tragic and shocking it was, but also because her patient wore an uncharacteristic empty smile as she died.
This haunting event is the catalyst of ‘Smile’ that sends Rose on an unsettling journey to understand the nature of what happened – and why she’s suddenly being haunted by the same twisted smiles everywhere she turns. Rose searches for answers as her sanity slowly drips away, and the characters around her become increasingly concerned for her safety and mental state, as she sees an evil pursuing her that no one else can see, an evil that wears other people’s smiles as masks.
The story of ‘Smile’ is more than just some unsettling curse killing people. As Rose discovers the nature of what is happening to her, she’s forced to face the trauma of her past that she’s kept hidden for too long. ‘Smile’ becomes more than just a horror movie, it becomes a commentary on the trauma and the wounds that we keep hidden and how if we can’t conquer them, they’ll conquer us. The very thing that we oftentimes use as a mask to hide our pain and our scars, the innocence of a smile, becomes the very thing that this evil wears. It hides its true face the way we hide our own.
As Rose struggles to survive, she’s faced with the question of how to conquer her past and how to strip off her own masks. When it comes down to it, ‘Smile’ is a story about mental health and how to fight trauma as well as an allegory of how sooner or later the pain we bury can rear its head and cause more trauma to ourselves and others unless we take the hard path to end the cycle of pain and abuse.
To pair with its story about mental decline, “Smile” is filmed in such a way that I felt like I was watching a nightmare. This wasn’t because it was particularly terrifying with what was shown on screen, although there were plenty of jumpscares and unsettling imagery. I can’t exactly put my finger on what gave ‘Smile’ this freakish dreamlike feeling, but the cinematography with its camera movements and unconventional framing of characters in its shots made me feel like I was watching someone else’s fever dream. Shots linger a bit too long. Closeup scenes get a little too close. And sometimes, a character that should be framed in the center of a shot stays in the corner, making our eyes focus on what’s beyond, on what might be hidden tucked away in the shadows. As Rose’s mental state deteriorates, so does the stability and reliability of what’s being shown, getting the viewer to a point of paranoia and unease that mirrors the character we follow.
In the end then, ‘Smile’ is an engaging, unsettling, sometimes scary, and never boring horror film. Sosie Bacon utterly steals the screen as Rose, and with some stellar supporting actors like Jessie T. Usher backing up her lead performance, ‘Smile’s’ characters are captivating and compelling. The story it tells and the values it conveys kept me thinking both about the film and my own life and past. While some may think the ending lacked narrative satisfaction, I thought ‘Smile’ was a captivating watch. If you have the patience to invest in its slow burn, and the interest to devote thought into what it’s trying to convey, then “Smile’ will be so much more than another generic scary movie. It’ll be a film that will make you think about real, hard truths, and I find that far worth the price of admission.
I give ‘Smile’ an 8.5/10.
‘Smile’ is now showing in theaters.
Ben Konuch is a sophomore strategic communications student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games, and failing horribly at wallyball with his friends.