Smile Review: A Trauma-Horror That Bares Its Teeth

In the sea of A24 movies that are “secretly about trauma,” the emergence of something more overt, effective, and, let’s be honest, horrific should be celebrated. This seat-gripping dive into the horrors of mental illness doesn’t offer easy answers, nor bask in the romanticism of the misunderstood. There’s a quality of solid storytelling at work here that doesn’t feel the need to hide its lack of substance behind either boastful stillness (think Under The Skin) or B-movie schlock (think Malignant).

The premise as follows evokes It Follows. After witnessing a horrific death, Dr. Rose Cotter starts to see unexplainable reminders of that disturb and destroy her life. Finding that there has been a pattern of people like her, Rose seeks help in finding a way to break the chain of horrors that have lead to her experiencing horrifying visions of smiling faces before it’s too late.

From the title card of Smile, it’s clear the audience sits not just on the edge of their seats, but on the edge of the hands of a masterful horror director. Parker Finn directs tastefully, choosing his moments to openly showcase cinematographic skill as it best suits the story. His lighting has the viewer searching backgrounds for any semblance of movement, reminding one of Alien‘s harrowing illumination before a later shot directly references David Fincher’s AlienĀ³. Other than a late scene in which the director too obviously could not work with special effects, the tone consistently hits every freaky beat with skillfully minimal blocking.

These elements are all tied together by an apt allegory for mental illness. Our protagonist is faced with overcoming the stigma surrounding the otherness of traumatized people in an on-the-edge-of-truth way. The passivity that can typically encounter these narratives is stripped down to its desperate elements, not filled with disparate ones that the filmmaker will claim are “up for interpretation”. Rose fights tooth and nail in every way she knows how to overcome this creature. The film tracks her alternation between grasping for someone to help and pushing people away, rather than putting her at a distance for our projection. Smile is a rock solid terrifying time with plenty going on below the surface, a rare unicorn in the sea of so-called “elevated horror”.

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