Smile, writer-director Parker Finn’s feature debut, joins a growing sub-genre of horror films about nasty curses in a contemporary setting filled with smartphones, modern hospitals, and MacBooks. Smile’s message is clear: this could happen to you. Centuries of technological advances and progress have nothing on supernatural curses that laugh in the face of science. Our protagonist, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), finds this out the hard way when her life collapses after witnessing a terrible tragedy at work.
A dedicated, extremely overworked therapist with a loving fiancé and an adorable cat named Mustache, Rose’s support system slowly crumbles as she struggles to convince her family that something’s got her number. She might struggle to convince you, too: Smile sets events into motion that make us doubt Rose and empathize with her simultaneously. Rose’s reliability as a narrator aside, we see that the effect of the curse on her is very real. But just how far does its influence extend?
Once Smile establishes itself as Rose’s story, the film lets us know that things will not go well by literally upending her world. We follow her red car in a bird’s eye view through a landscape that goes from vivacious greens to wilting reds and browns. The camera then flips so Rose’s car is upside-down, implying that she’s descending into the unknown and that her life has taken a turn in the worst possible way. Smile returns to this upended, topsy-turvy world in several other scenes, the trees Rose’s car passes growing weaker as she unravels.
As the supernatural threat intrudes further upon her life, Rose feels an urgent need to convince others in her life of the coming danger. This results in Rose behaving in ways that can be construed as frantic and unsettling. Her efforts are met with disgust and dismissal from her fiancé (Jessie T. Usher), disappointment and dismissal from her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), and anger from the widow of one of the curse’s victims, Mrs. Muñoz (Judy Reyes). Only Rose’s ex-boyfriend, Joel (Kyle Gallner), a cop who attends to the scene of the tragedy, seems inclined to believe her side of the story. As it turns out, suspending disbelief can be borne by perceived hotness.
Smile also has a lot of fun with the smile itself as a plot device. We learn early on that The Smile is not a friendly one. So we’re primed to take notice whenever we see anything resembling a smile, whether it’s Rose’s smiley face mug at work or the lone cartoon smiley in a Pain Assessment Tool chart. We scrutinize these innocuous details because we sense – no matter how absurd this may sound – that they now have the potential to become threatening.
Smile also uses camera work to great effect. Parker Finn is a big fan of the slow panning shot, which is an effective tool for building dread when combined with a sparse set design and even sparser lighting. He also employs Stanley Kubrick’s famous deranged closeup whenever the curse wishes to make itself known. This happens several times throughout the film, making me wonder if part of the audition process included the direction, “Give me your worst, most horrible smile.”
Smile’s sound design (from Cristobal Tapia de Veer) is also ever-present in the form of loud, very sudden ringtones amid deafening silence, as well as rhythmic, industrial soundscapes when things get really nasty. The latter is reminiscent of Akira Yamaoka’s work on the earlier Silent Hill video games, which are also big on dread and repressed memories.
Because it’s primarily about curses and is rooted in a world that looks like and operates very much like ours, Smile is often compared with It Follows (2014). It’s an understandable comparison, given that the entity in It Follows is also able to assume the identities of others. And the structure of both films is similar to that of a slasher flick, in that they involve teenagers being stalked by some supernatural being, their warnings disregarded until it’s too late.
Smile also brings to mind Ring (1998).The Guardian‘s review connects Smile to a much older story, M.R. James‘ 1911 tale “Casting the Runes.” Clearly, Smile has many contemporaries and cousins and a story that echoes way back. But to me, its closest relative is Netflix’s Marianne (2019), a TV series about Emma, an author (Victoire Du Bois) compelled to write by a witch. Her writing sets horrible things in motion and increases the witch’s power.
In Marianne‘s first episode, Camille (Lucie Boujenah) answers a phone call from someone purporting to be a home security system employee. This setup parallels a scene in Smile when Rose is alone and hears the home security alarm go off, which is then followed up by a tense phone call with a home security system employee. And just as Emma is called back to her hometown, Rose’s inability to untether herself from her past has her return to her childhood home to confront what she has left behind.
Marianne and Smile also employ a trippy false ending, one that looks and feels like a nightmare given form. The gleeful malice of Marianne and the Smiling Entity also bear eerie similarities. Maybe they’re from the same hell dimension.
According to creator Samuel Bodin and writer Quoc Dang Tran, Marianne’s theme is friendship and forgiveness. Smile’s is where the two worlds diverge. It suggests that the scariest thing that can happen to us in this modern day and age is being unheard and not healing. It also warns us that unresolved trauma can set fire to all our hard-earned progress. The film itself sums it up nicely: “You can’t escape your own mind.” By pretending to be okay, by grinning and bearing it, we only sabotage ourselves.