Allow me to explain.
I’ve rarely – if ever – followed trends. If a new film gets released and everybody is talking about it, then I’m probably not going to just jump aboard the bandwagon, experience at that time, and offer up my own praise and/or criticism at that time. Why not? Well, as a writer who strives to be different, it kinda/sorta defeats the purpose of jumping into the pool when it’s already at capacity, no? Calmer minds tend to prevail in quieter moments, so I tend to take my sweet time before giving some popular project a whirl. Also, if everyone else is already talking about it, then logically what substantially might I have to add at that time? Adding to the fact that I’ve more often than not been disappointed with these flash-and-sizzle entries than I’ve ever found myself swooning over them, I learned long ago to wait out the buzz and then see what all of the fuss was about.
That’s my opening two cents over 2022’s Smile, the debut feature from writer/director Parker Finn. I honestly lost count of the number of smilers who either recommended it to me or asked for my opinion of it whilst it was being trumpeted as one of Horror’s possible ‘next big things.’ (As I said, I’m not much for bandwagons.) However, I noticed it also being ‘recommended’ to me by Prime Video over the weekend. Now that I can successfully put a bit of space between me and the advertising media onslaught, I thought the time was right to dive in and get my feet wet.
I’m glad I did.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“After witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, a psychiatrist becomes increasingly convinced she is being threatened by an uncanny entity.”
The short skinny as to what I have to say after viewing Smile would be to agree with those who trumpeted this nifty little sleeper hit as the birth of an all-new franchise. Like a good many intellectual properties in the genre, the inaugural film most definitely has all the right stuff to make it a lesser tentpole-style prospect – a solid hook, a kinda/sorta signature baddie, a founding formula that lends itself to modest flexibility, etc. – and if done properly it could enjoy a long and fruitful life at both the box office as well as home video platforms. But the real kicker here is that, yes, it would have to be done right, not quick and cheap or to the point of becoming too obsessed with itself.
Similar in theme to A Nightmare On Elm Street entity, Smile could very well fall off the tracks in much the same way that Freddie Krueger starring vehicle did. With each successive entry in that series, the stories turned away from the concept and grew more about how outlandish Krueger’s bloody antics could become. Instead of sticking with what worked and perhaps having all of the players truly up their game and/or make their background stories more complex, the franchise devolved to the point wherein it was fundamentally poking more fun at itself. Once this happens, audiences revolt – even if slowly – and the box office receipts dwindle to point wherein no one can justify keeping the films afloat.
Sosie Bacon plays the inevitable victim Rose Cotter, an evaluative psychiatric therapist for what looks to be an emergency ward. As she essentially deals in diagnosing some of the more extreme mental patients for the danger they pose to themselves and society, she’s obviously schooled in recognizing dementia quickly, making her a bit of a therapeutic brainiac who can identify problems across a broad, broad spectrum of possibilities. Naturally – when a young woman comes into a hospital and puts a sharp object to her throat – you don’t have to be a clinical expert to see the problem, but Finn’s script rather deftly introduces one victim to Cotter – the next victim – in what functions as a highly communicable curse.
So … the formula works perfectly, and it practically mirrors what other franchises – like the aforementioned Nightmare and even Friday The 13th, Scream, and many others have followed: the ending of one film serves to set-up the next central character we’ll follow through a sequel. This gives the properties an obvious progression: the audience is ‘in’ on the event that haunts our next big lead, and everything that follows feels very organic. Smile does this – the closing scene clearly puts a sequel on the planning board by showing us who is next-in-store – and it’s a pitch perfect configuration and continuation if producers choose to do so.
That strength aside, Smile could benefit a bit more from some world-building.
The flick leaves exactly who is doing some of these dark deeds open to interpretation. For example, the story suggests that Rose was most likely guilty of both killing the cat (Mustache), wrapping it in the box, and presenting it to her nephew as his rather grim birthday present; but it stops well short of showing her. While this could’ve easily been resolved with showing a flittering of flashback scenes involving the lady’s descent, the writer chose to leave it open-ended. Given the fact that our ethereal villain only appears to manipulate reality through hallucinations, then how did the dead feline wind up both deceased and gift-wrapped? I contest that an explanation was warranted.
Also, Finn’s script relies on one element that’s arguably become a bit cliched in Horror, that being the film is centered on a narrator with a family history of mental illness. (Sigh.) As we’ve seen this more and more a tactic for obvious misdirection in lesser films (i.e. “Is she imagining all of this? Could this really be happening?”), I felt Rose’s journey was cheapened by this rather predictable trope. Given the woman’s field of work – as well as her demonstrated work ethic – the door was already open to the fact that she was simply mentally exhausted – a condition that could also have caused some of the resulting anguish – so the inclusion of the family history becomes unimportant. Keeping that element in waters down an otherwise perfectly efficient yarn, and I question whether or not that was a good creative choice.
Still, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that what worked first and best in all of Smile was Bacon’s incredible performance. The actress gave one of the best turns in Horror as of late – the troubled soul who rather frantically feels the fabric of reality both twisting and shredding around her – with some wonderfully nuanced behaviors demonstrating a mind in transition. That and the mostly smart script proven to be the combination that fueled the flick’s initial popularity; so here’s hoping that both she and the potential franchise continue to find – cough cough – long life at the box office and beyond. She and it are stars to watch.
Smile (2022) was produced by Paramount Players and Temple Hill Productions. A quick Google.com search informs me that it’s currently available for purchase or rental across a variety of digital platforms. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the provided sights-and-sounds were nothing short of top notch; the picture looks and sounds incredible. Lastly – as I streamed this on Amazon.com’s Prime Video via my own membership – there were no special features under consideration.