Synopsis: After witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, Dr. Rose Cotter starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can’t explain. As an overwhelming terror begins taking over her life, Rose must confront her troubling past to survive and escape her horrifying new reality.
Stars: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn, Rob Morgan, Robin Weigert, Judy Reyes
Director: Parker Finn
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: While I’m happy that movie theaters have gotten back into full swing and we’re able to experience films made for the big screen in the larger-than-life projection as they were initially intended, there’s a cold truth that must be said. It’s still annoying to deal with audiences that simply don’t care about preserving the art of movie-going with the same magic it used to have before technology, bad manners, and entitlement took over. The texting remains as bad as ever, loud talking with disregard for other patrons is still there, and general apathy toward the personal space of the people around you is firmly in place. Don’t believe me? Tell it to the gentleman and his date I had to sit a few rows behind the other day who used their shiny phones to brightly correspond with friends while putting their feet up on top of the (occupied!) seats in front of them.
For all these bad apple audiences, when you find yourself in one that not only plays by the rules but adds their bit of fun, you remember again why a communal spirit is an integral part of the shared movie-going experience. Watching the nerve-rattling new horror film Smile, the audience (for once, a nice mix of ages and races that represents a broad spectrum of ticket-buyer) came to get their bones rattled. You could feel the energy building the scarier the film got and the more reactions from row to row. Even a rogue talker providing color commentary, usually a source of ire for me, successfully landed some well-timed zingers that didn’t impede the mood.
I’ve been in audiences like this when a movie is terrible (like the time a thirtysomething man was laughing so hard at the 2007 Lindsay Lohan debacle I Know Who Killed Me he literally fell out of his seat and rolled down the aisle) but with a movie like Smile, which is far better than average, you know early on how forgiving an audience will be. Because Smile is pretty silly if you dwindle on any significant part of the plot, not that writer/director Parker Finn stays in one place for too long in his film that’s, coincidentally, too long. From a prologue that sets a tone of uneasiness that continues throughout to a dedicated embrace of all the tricks in the genre playbook, Smile is aggressively coming for your screams and won’t stop until it gets it. It got me; it will get you.
Hospital emergency ward therapist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is dedicated to her work and helping patients through traumatic events. In the few brief character-building moments we have with her as the film opens, we get the impression her passion for care often outweighs what she can reasonably offer from a medical or emotional standpoint. She’s supposed to be headed home for a well-earned rest when she takes one last admit, a tormented patient (Caitlin Stasey) that speaks of a presence stalking her that only she can see. Before Rose can learn more, the patient commits a crazed act of self-harm that serves as the starting point for Rose’s descent into her paranoia of supernatural menace.
Unable to do her job effectively, her boss (Kal Penn) puts her on leave, while her fiancé (Jesse T. Usher) doesn’t know what to do to stop a growing madness from taking over. A visit to Rose’s therapist (the excellent Robin Weigert, Bombshell) fills in some blanks into Rose’s childhood and the trauma endured that has followed her around ever since. Were these demons reawakened when she bore witness to the recent violence, or has a curse transferred to her, a curse now working as a doomsday clock counting down to a similar gory fate?
Drawing bits and pieces from films like The Ring, Drag Me to Hell, and a little bit of It Follows, Smile is set apart by a style and sophisticated production elements which give it a prominent studio sheen. Indeed, Paramount’s 17-million-dollar investment has been used wisely, with special effects from legendary masters of the craft Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. Spending your money where it counts provides the film with calling card frights. These nightmare-inducing images leap out from the dark at you, accompanied by a sting of dissonant music from Cristobal Tapia de Veer.
Finn uses the score and sound effects to keep you on your toes. Sure, much of the screeching jolts feel like cheap ways to goose you into a reaction, and yet they work like walking through a haunted house when there’s an endless parade of scares while you traverse down a hallway. With frights jumping out at you from every angle, it’s natural that you will jump right when you are directed to because that is the point. The same is true here. The cheap scares are one thing, but the earned ones (and there are quite a few) are dandy. Consider getting a lid for your popcorn and a seat belt for your chair, so you don’t levitate right out of your seat.
We’re on a great run of horror films lately (The Black Phone, Barbarian, House of Darkness), and Smile continues that streak. I loved watching this one and how unrelenting it was in its mission to mine us for all the shrieks it could. Even the short title design cast its particular mood on this viewer. Those unwilling to have that joy buzzer scare will likely emerge from Smile feeling used. Understanding what it’s purposely doing and how it aims for the extreme versions of overused motifs will give you something to flash your pearly whites for.