Smile: Even Though It’s Breaking, by David Bax
Anyone who spends an above average amount of time thinking about horror movies–or reading and listening to other people’s thoughts on them–is familiar with the idea that horror and comedy work along similar lines, evidenced by the fact that screams and laughter are both involuntary reactions to what’s on screen. But it’s one thing to know that intellectually and another to be able to wield it as well as Parker Finn does in his new movie Smile, which is often utterly terrifying while also being a lot of weird-ass fun.
That’s because Smile isn’t a movie that’s sometimes scary and other times funny. Rather, it’s often both at the same time. The auditory chills and the visual shocks are as effective as they are bewildering. It becomes so that you can’t even till if your laughter is of the nervous sort or not.
Lest we give all of the credit to Finn, who both wrote and directed, let’s acknowledge Smile‘s very worthy cast, most notably Sosie Bacon in the lead role of Rose, the doctor who’s either losing her mind or the victim of a mad curse; Robin Weigert, equal parts disarming and unnerving as Rose’s a little too attentive psychiatrist; and Caitlin Stasey as the poor young woman in Rose’s care whose early demise plagues Rose and, it should be noted, does not stop her from appearing in the rest of the film.
As mentioned, Smile is a horror movie based on an invented curse. In that way, it can’t help but invoke a film like Gore Verbinski‘s The Ring. The comparison becomes even more apt when Rose, much like Naomi Watts‘ Rachel, turns into a sort of amateur detective. Unfortunately, Finn is not quite as adept at these passages as Verbinski and, it must be said, Smile drags a bit in the procedural sequences between horrifying new developments.
Smile is much more effective as an allegory than as a sleuth story. It wears its themes on its sleeve, foregrounding Rose’s traumatic childhood and underlining the similarities between the curse’s ability to transfer from person to person and the way trauma is inherited down through generations like some awful familial infection. It’s not subtle but it’s potent.
Nothing is quite so effective, though, as Finn’s penchant for inventively disturbing images. He and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff return time and again to straight on shots of people’s faces, often while they’re either witnessing or doing something unimaginable. That’s an instruction, of sorts, for the audience. Don’t look away. Just keep smiling through it.