Superhero movies aren’t the only kind of movies that survived the pandemic and restored some faith in the future of theaters. Horror movies (Barbarian, Halloween Ends, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Terrifier 2) have been rallying, and one of the bigger success stories has been Smile, which has taken $213 million worldwide against a $17 million budget. Smile was also helped immeasurably by its creepy marketing campaign, which involved putting people wearing menacing smiles behind home plate at baseball games. The actual movie, or should I say the actual story, doesn’t live up to the marketing. But its writer-director Parker Finn is a director to watch.

Note I don’t say “writer to watch.” Stripped down, Smile is the sort of curse film that was popular in Asia about 25 years ago, and then briefly in America. The way the smile curse works is simple. Someone cursed commits messy suicide in front of you (with their face contorted in an eerie, mirthless rictus), creating trauma that the entity feeds on; it then, within the next seven days, cozies up to you and torments you a fair bit before making you, too, kill yourself in front of someone, perpetuating the cycle. There’s a metaphor here for how the unchecked effects of trauma can repeat themselves. But Parker Finn is interested primarily in the number of startling “Boo!” moments — jump scares — he can get out of the premise. Which is disappointing, but Finn sets them up effectively and also creates a sense of oppressive dread as well as random freakiness.

Smile focuses on therapist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who had a traumatized patient slit her own throat in front of her. The patient is played by Caitlin Stasey, who played what I think is the same role in Finn’s 2020 short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept.” (I recommend that short, as well as Finn’s first short, 2018’s “The Hidebehind.”) This kicks off a standard supernatural-horror plot in which Rose sees weird, terrifying things, but nobody will believe her, and conveniently she has a cop ex-boyfriend (Kyle Gallner) who can help her track down people connected or related to the smile curse’s prior victims. Smile creates a simultaneous doubling effect in the viewer: we experience the story and we are unimpressed, but we see and hear the stifling moods of fear and frustration Finn can evoke and we wish they weren’t yoked to such a nothing-special story.

I guess Smile will be wild and strange for people whose tastes tend towards the norm of filmmaking. If your norm is Lynch or Cronenberg, you’re likely to shrug, while recognizing Parker Finn’s game as a pure horror director. “The Hidebehind,” for instance, is really nothing other than a piece about a guy lost in the woods who runs into a mysterious entity, but it’s simply and effectively wrought. Finn knows how to use ominous quietude and uncertainty to creep us out. Horror fans will hear more about him in the years to come, but horror fans will also have seen most of the story elements Finn has to offer here and will, again, shrug. Perhaps in the future Finn will hire a good writer, or find a story that means more to him than being a clothesline for ooga-booga freak-outs.

Past a certain point the plot stops making sense — Rose has been flagged as a potential danger to herself and/or others, and she’s still driving around (including to her abandoned childhood house where her mother killed herself, which you’d think would be staked out) as if no one were looking for her. Maybe no one is. Here and there, Smile chills when it brushes against the intractable realities of mental illness in America; Rose gets mildly called onto the carpet when she approves a mental patient for admission but the patient has no insurance. Later, we see that there was no meaningful help available to Rose’s mom; she could only suffer and waste away and terrorize her daughters. Some of the subtext here is cold and ugly in ways that befit a horror movie but put standard horror tropes to shame. And there’s a spectacularly horrific/awkward birthday party with a shock we see coming (and it’s another element whose aftermath is exquisitely implausible as a literal plot point — there would probably be jail time for that) but is still precisely carpentered. Some movies begin as dazzling scripts and get diluted in the filming. Smile may be the exact opposite, a humdrum script that shows off a director who, if he wanted to and had the right material, could really hurt us. Maybe next time. 

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