Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Smile—Turn that Frown Upside

The lost verses of Charlie Chaplin’s classic tune probably go something like “smile, even though you're being tormented by a supernatural entity,” right? Weirdly, the song is not heard during this film, unless it is buried deep in the closing credits. There is no cheap irony, but there are jump scares. However, those jump scares are unusually effective in director-screenwriter Parker Finn’s Smile, which open Friday nationwide.

Dr. Rose Cotter is an incredibly diligent emergency room psychiatrist, but even she is shocked when her new patient, Laura Weaver, brutally kills herself during their first session. The experience understandably disturbs her, but she feels an additional sense of unease. Her eyes must be playing tricks on her, because she keeps seeing her late patient’s maniacal smile on other people.

Slowly, she starts to suspect a mysterious something is stalking her. Her wealthy fiancé is not much help, but her torch-carrying ex-boyfriend, who conveniently happens to be the cop who responded to Weaver’s suicide case, helps her research the victim’s past. It turns out, Weaver also witnessed a grisly suicide a week earlier. That man also watched a shocking self-annihilation a week before, and so on and so forth.

might be a studio horror film, but you can see the influence of the “elevated horror” trend. Finn seriously addresses issues mental health and family dysfunction in ways that never feel exploitative. The film could even be therapeutic, were it not for the very standard horror movie ending.

There are still a lot of jump scares, but they really make you jump like a nervous jackrabbit. At nearly two full hours,
Smile is a bit too long (ironically Finn adapted it from his short film), but there are a number of super-sharply executed, highly memorable scenes, such as Cotter’s prison meeting with an accused murderer, who might have escaped the Smiley curse.

Sosie Bacon is pretty darned impressive, going all in as Dr. Cotter. Seriously, this is a real performance. Kyle Gallner provides a solid, grounded counter-balance as Joel, her ex. There are also a number of terrific supporting horror turns, including Caitlin Stasey as Weaver, Rob Morgan as the prisoner Robert Talley, and Jack Sochet is massively creepy as Cotter’s disturbed patient, Carl Renken.

nicely builds its atmosphere of paranoid dread, while treating its themes of trauma and recovery (or the lack thereof) in a respectful dramatic fashion. That is why the uninspired conclusion is a real let-down (but truly satisfying horror movie endings are hard to come by). Recommended overall for genre fans, Smile opens Friday (9/30) at the AMC Lincoln Square.