September 30, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Parker Finn
Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey and briefly in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the horror film “Smile” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A clinical psychiatrist witnesses a patient commit suicide after the patient claims to be stalked by an evil entity, and then the psychiatrist begins to believe that this evil entity is now stalking her and is trying to kill her.
Culture Audience: “Smile” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of terrifying horror movies about supernatural evil and about how trauma can haunt people.
“Smile” doesn’t reinvent the horror genre, but it has the type of suspense and gore that will get viewers to jump and squirm in their seats and possibly have some nightmares. This well-crafted story is the start of an obvious franchise. Unfortunately, there is a very real possibility that “Smile” could turn into franchise like the “Saw” horror movie series, which overstayed its welcome and failed to maintain the quality of the first movie in the series. If the inevitable “Smile” sequels turn out to be mindless trash dumps, at least people can still enjoy the first “Smile” movie as an example of a horror movie done right.
“Smile” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Parker Finn) takes a simple concept and turns it into a tension-filled thriller that has more going on than just a series of gruesome deaths. There’s also a bona fide mystery-solving aspect to the story that will hold viewers’ interest. “Smile” doesn’t waste time getting to the bloody horror, because the first death happens in the first 10 minutes of the movie.
“Smile” begins by showing protagonist Dr. Rose Cotter (played by Sosie Bacon) at her job as a clinical psychiatrist at Mount Pleasant Hospital in Newark, New Jersey. (The movie was filmed on location in New Jersey.) Rose thinks of herself as a calm and analytical professional who can handle almost anything that comes her way. Her life is about to be turned upside down with the arrival of a patient who ends up killing herself in front of Rose.
Before that patient arrives at the hospital, the movie shows that Rose is the type of medical professional who is compassionate to people who don’t have health insurance. She gets called into the office of her immediate supervisor, Dr. Morgan Desai (played by Kal Penn), who mildly reprimands her for not giving him advance notice about Rose treating a patient who has no health insurance and who has a history of mania and drug abuse. Rose lets Dr. Desai know that she’s annoyed by the corporate, profit-oriented way of treating patients. She believes that giving people the best health care possible should be more important than whether or not people can afford to pay for treatment through health insurance.
One of Rose’s current patients is a man named Carl Renken (played by Jack Sochet), who keeps repeating things out loud such as, “Mom’s going to die. I’m going to die. We’re all going to die.” Carl seems to be living in his own world that’s removed from reality, because he doesn’t communicate much except to make these ominous death statements. Rose has diagnosed Carl with having “manic episodes.”
Rose is soon called to attend to a graduate student named Laura Weaver (played by Caitlin Stasey), who appears to be having a psychotic break with reality. Laura has been brought to the hospital for the first time for a psychiatric evaluation. Laura is fully conscious, but she’s rambling about how she’s being stalked by something that wants to kill her. Before Rose sees Laura in an observation room, Rose is quickly told that just a week before, Laura experienced the trauma of witnessing her art history professor Gabriel Muñoz bludgeoning himself to death with a hammer.
Rose and Laura are alone together in an observation room, where Rose interviews Laura for an evaluation. Laura says to Rose, “I’m a Ph.D. candidate. I’m not some lunatic.” Laura then tells Rose with fear in her voice: “I’m seeing something—something that no one else can see. It looks like different people.” Laura then describes that this “something” disguises itself as people she knows and people who are total strangers.
“It wears people’s faces likes masks,” Laura continues. And how does Laura know she’s in the presence of this indescribable entity? Laura says that this “something” makes itself known when Laura sees it in the form of a person who has a very menacing and creepy smile on that person’s face.
Suddenly, Laura screams out in terror and acts as if an unseen entity is attacking her. Laura writhes around on the floor and continues screaming, as if she’s fighting for her life against something that Rose can’t see. Some glass in the room gets broken during the process. Rose quickly goes to use a phone on the wall to call for emergency backup.
In order to use the phone, Rose had to temporarily turn her back to Laura. When Rose turns around, she sees Laura, who is now silent, standing up with an eerie smile on her face. And without saying a word, Laura uses the glass to fatally slit her throat in front of Rose.
The two police officers who arrive at the hospital to investigate are Detective Buckley (played by Perry Strong) and a guy named Joel (played by Kyle Gallner), who happens to be an ex-boyfriend of Rose. Detective Buckley, who is the older and more jaded cop partner, uses a lot of insensitive language to describe mentally ill people. Joel, who is the junior partner, asks some questions, but he lets Detective Buckley take the lead in the interviewing.
After this rough day, Rose goes home to try and relax. She lives alone and has a male cat named Moustache, who is friendly and adorable. It’s later revealed that Rose been working 60-hour weeks for the past several weeks, with no vacation time off. It’s why, when she starts to have her own mental unraveling, her boss thinks it’s the direct result of Rose being overworked.
Rose is so on edge when she gets home, she startled when her loving and supportive fiancé Trevor (played by Jessie T. Usher) shows up. She tells him about losing a patient that day, but she doesn’t go into the gory details. Trevor hugs and comforts her and asks her if there’s anything he can do. She says his hug is a good start.
Over time, viewers see that Rose has a pattern of trying to hide any pain or trauma that she might be feeling, which is why she doesn’t tell Trevor everything right away about the circumstances under which Laura died under Rose’s brief encounter with Laura. Rose’s workaholic ways and wanting to project an image of being a strong, independent woman eventually take their toll on her mental health when she begins to believe that something evil is trying to kill her.
If “Smile” has any big flaws, it’s the over-used horror cliché of “the woman who is not believed and labeled as mentally ill.” That’s essentially what goes on during the last half of “Smile,” as Rose becomes more and more convinced that she will be soon murdered by an evil entity that other people can’t see. However, some things happen along the way that make it look like Rose is the one who’s dangerous. Rose eventually has to get psychiatric help and starts seeing a therapist named Dr. Madeline Northcott (played by Robin Weigert), who tries to remain neutral, but Dr. Northcott also begins to question Rose’s sanity.
One of the best things about “Smile” is that it doesn’t make Rose a hollow character who just has nightmares or runs around looking terrified. Rose has an entire backstory that is eventually revealed. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Rose is still reeling from the trauma of her single mother committing suicide when Rose was 10 years old.
Rose has an older sister named Holly (played by Gillian Zinser), who was an adult who had already moved out of the family home when their mother killed herself. Holly, who still lives in New Jersey, is now a wife, homemaker and the mother of a son named Jackson (played by Matthew Lamb), who turns 7 years old during the course of the story. Holly is a domineering spouse to her husband Greg (played by Nick Arapoglou), who is as materialistic as Holly is.
For example, Greg and Holly don’t understand why Rose won’t take their advice to open up a private practice so that Rose can get a much higher salary than what she makes at the hospital. During a dinner that Rose and Trevor have with Holly and Greg at a restaurant, Greg tells Rose that the main reason to become a doctor should be to get rich. Trevor defends Rose by saying that Rose isn’t a doctor for the money and that she loves being a doctor so much, she would be a doctor for free.
A more emotional and touchier subject with this family is that Holly and Greg disagree with Rose about what to do with the property that has the run-down and abandoned house where Rose and Holly used to live as children. Rose apparently co-owns the property with Holly, but Rose refuses to sign off on selling the house, or tearing down the house and selling the land. And as soon as it’s mentioned that there’s a run-down and abandoned house in a horror movie, you just know that there’s going to be at least one scene that takes place in that run-down and abandoned house.
Meanwhile, viewers find out that Joel isn’t completely over Rose, who broke up with him in a period of time that is not specified in the movie. Joel already knows that Rose is engaged to another man. However, Joel appears to still be in love with Rose, which explains why he shows up unannounced at the hospital the day after Laura’s suicide, to check in on Rose and ask her how she’s doing.
At first, Rose gives Joel a polite but firm brushoff. But later, when strange and disturbing things start happening to Rose, she asks for Joel’s help in investigating what Laura told Rose before Laura committed suicide. Joel agrees to help Rose in his off-duty time. Professor Gabriel Muñoz’s widow Victoria Muñoz (played by Judy Reyes) and a prisoner named Robert Talley (played by Rob Morgan) offer some big clues along the way in this investigation.
“Smile” has many talented cast members, but Bacon is the obvious standout in her portrayal of Rose, a character that has to carry the movie with a variety of believable emotions and various stages of terror. Writer/director Finn brings a foreboding tone and pace to “Smile” that doesn’t ease up on any of the tension. And thankfully, the movie sticks to an uncomplicated concept that doesn’t get distracted or cluttered by too many characters and subplots. The movie also injects some comic relief in a few scenes, mostly coming from Joel’s comments.
But make no mistake: “Smile” is a movie that is definitely not for very young children or people who are easily agitated by seeing very hideous death scenes. One of the main things that will keep viewers on edge and invested in the story is finding out exactly what is the cause of the terror in this movie. “Smile” does not disappoint when that mystery is revealed.
The movie could have ended in several different ways. The ending that was chosen is ultimately the one that packs a major wallop that many viewers will not see coming. And just like many original horror movies that leave a huge impression on audiences, “Smile” is poised to spawn multiple sequels for people who want the terrifying story to continue.
Paramount Pictures released “Smile” in U.S. cinemas on September 30, 2022, with a sneak preview in select U.S. cinemas on September 27, 2022.