2022, R, 115 min. Directed by Parker Finn. Starring Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Kal Penn, Judy Reyes.

REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., Sept. 30, 2022

The premise of Smile is one that comes with baggage at this point in the modern horror cycle. This story about therapist Rose (Bacon) being cursed by an entity that wields the smiling faces of those familiar to the accursed is yet another trauma-horror allegory, a metaphor that has become so overused it’s begun to become a bit of a joke. However, the debut feature of writer/director Parker Finn looks to upend some of your potential assumptions about what this kind of movie – from a mainstream studio, no less – can actually be.

Indeed, Smile, at its best, is a bit weirder and more left-field than you may expect. Following the recent release of Barbarian, it’s continuing this year’s trend of seemingly well-polished, potentially anonymous studio horrors having much more inspired, hidden ambitions than other high-profile contemporaries. This is slickly assembled, sure, but is crafted with inventive camera work, off-kilter audio cues, and its fair share of no-bullshit jump scares and unnerving imagery. There’s a uniquely morose tone that intuitively allows your brain to prepare for the worst – like our characters are living before an inevitable end of the world. It’s led by an all-in performance from Bacon, who grounds the story within her slow, deteriorating state of mind and escalating madness.

As strong as Finn’s atmospheric sensibilities are, his script isn’t always able to keep up. Following a strong first act that makes you believe you may just be in the hands of a new genre craftsman who really knows what he’s doing, Smile unfortunately sags in its middle section as Rose embarks on her investigative quest with cop/ex Joel (Gallner) to find the truth. There are highlights scattered throughout – a tense scene that involves confronting a previous owner of the mysterious curse comes to mind – but there are stretches that will make you antsy for reasons other than a potential scare. The scares themselves (even the legitimately great ones) typically lack a follow-through, too, usually featuring our lead coming face to face with the monster only to regularly cut to the next scene where we’re left to assume everything went over all right. Rinse and repeat.

The ultimate destination is both surprising and frustrating, as the film suddenly again morphs into something much stranger and exciting than you would expect based on initial impressions of what this should be, but also ultimately does fold into becoming another overwrought allegory for its trauma through line. To its credit, this gets pretty close to riding the ideal line between jumpy spookfest and self-serious highbrow horror, and its streak of genuinely great built-for-a-crowd moments and gnarly imagery helps hoist this into positive territory. If nothing else, Smile is another signal that there could be a slow shift happening in studio horror for a potential new wave of idiosyncratic voices and ideas being ushered into the mainstream.

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Smile, Parker Finn, Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Kal Penn, Judy Reyes

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