There is something inherently frightening about a curse or malicious force that gets passed from person, which would explain why the idea is one that has come up repeatedly in the horror genre. With higher-budgeted major studio fare like The Ring and smaller, independent stories like It Follows, which made more explicit comparisons to STDs, this idea has almost turned into a subgenre of its own. Living as we are now in a “post”-pandemic world, it only makes sense that this sort of monster would feel even more unsettling than it might have otherwise, and so the timing of writer / director Parker Finn’s debut feature (based off his 2020 short film Laura Hasn’t Slept) could hardly have been more serendipitous.
After having worked for several shifts in a row in the psychiatric ward of an unnamed hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is about to head home for some much-needed rest when a highly agitated patient is brought in. Rose goes in to evaluate the young woman, a PhD student named Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), whose art history professor violently killed himself in front of her mere days earleir, and learns that she has been having strange and alarming visions that seem to want to cause her harm. During the session, Laura suddenly bolts upright, claiming the entity that has been haunting her is in the room. Rose calls for help, but before they can arrive, Laura cuts her throat and dies.
Rose is understandably shaken by the experience, and unfortunately receives very little support from her fiancée Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) or her older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and her husband Greg (Nick Arapoglou). In short order, she begins experiencing unusual phenomena and seeing people smiling at her maliciously, just like what Laura had described. Her therapist, Dr. Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert) refuses to prescribe her anything to help, and her loved ones continue to disregard her claims, writing it off as her having some sort of mental breakdown. She finds herself forced to turn to her ex-boyfriend, police detective Joel (Kyle Gallner), with whom she begins to trace whatever is happening to her back through dozens of victims in an effort to understand it and possibly find a way to beat it.
The plot is pretty familiar at this point, and Smile seems to pull ideas and imagery from several other movies, but there are enough clever twists on the formula to keep it from feeling derivative. Parker Finn and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff (Relic) use a mix of bravura camera work and unusual angles to keep things feeling at least a little bit off at all times, which combine with the eerie score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer (The White Lotus), smart pacing, and sparing use of well-staged jump scares to keep the tension ratcheting up throughout. Bacon fully commits to the role and sells her descent into madness while Gallner is so good at expressing seemingly genuine affection and concern for her that it leaves viewers to wonder exactly what could have gone wrong in their relationship. The idea of a contagious, evil entity may not be a new one, but it’s consistently scary, and Smile only helps to reinforce that idea. It’s easy to see why this smartly assembled movie has managed to resonate so strongly with audiences despite its bleak, humorless atmosphere, as Finn has created something that will leave audiences just as freaked out after it’s over as they are when they’re watching it. ★★★★★
rated r for strong violent content and grisly images, and language.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor