Monday, October 3, 2022

Whiplash Smile

Whether it be young children or pets or dolls or clowns, if it's something that no one would ever normally be scared by, the horror genre has co-opted it and rebranded it as a source of terror. Everyday household items have been transformed into objects of dread. Your TV, your phone, even your whole damn house. Basically if it's something you come in contact with every day and especially if it's something you assume can never hurt you, there's a horror movie (or even an entire subgenre of horror) to make you reconsider that.

For its part, Smile wants to give you a reason to be afraid of faces. Smiling faces, in particular, hence the title. Evil grins and unsettling smiles have made regular appearances in horror movies over the years but here we have a whole movie that is centered on the uneasy vibe given off by the sight of a face frozen in an unnatural smile. The first feature from writer/director Parker Finn, Smile is based on his 2020 short film Laura Hasn't Slept and it's a very confident debut. Initially intended to go straight to streaming, the enthusiastic reactions to Smile's test screenings convinced Paramount to give it a wide theatrical release. 

Right from its first trailer, it was obvious that Smile was going to be a hit. If you can deliver one effective jump in a horror trailer, you've successfully sold that movie and Smile had a choice one with star Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) sitting in her car as someone quickly approaches, stands close enough that their torso fills the driver's side window, then their neck abruptly drops down in an impossible fashion with their head dangling upside down at the end of their twisted, elastic neck. That one split second bit guaranteed Smile its big opening weekend. Even if you knew it was likely to be a cheap jump scare, it didn't matter. All that mattered was that it was clear this would be fun to see with an audience. The only bummer was having to wonder whether the trailer had given away the movie's biggest scare.

As it turns out, no, not even close. That slightly spoiler-y trailer saved plenty of surprises for the movie. Oh boy, did it ever. If you are a fan of being jolted by jump scares, Smile has got you covered and then some. There are several really big jumps in this movie, more than in any horror movie of recent memory and every one of them works like gangbusters. Some might feel it's too much but I appreciated Finn's commitment to the gig. If you're directing a horror movie, why make people scream a couple of times when you can do it about dozen? Seems to me like the guy is just doing his job. 

Had Smile only been about its jump scares, I might be more critical of Finn resorting to them as aggressively and shamelessly as he does but beyond its funhouse thrills there is a sobering sense of sadness that permeates Smile. In taking stock of grief and loss and trauma, Finn offsets whatever glibness his use of jump scares brings to Smile. Bacon's character of psychiatrist Dr. Rose Cotter already suffers from a deep childhood trauma in her past (that we don't get the full reveal of until near the end) so the emotional weight she already carries with her is only compounded when she is stricken with a mysterious curse. 

Witnessing an emergency patient that just recently arrived in her ward commit suicide in front of her, Rose soon begins to see the kind of visions that this disturbed patient had described to her prior to her death: people appearing to her with cold, unsettling grins on their face. Sometimes these are strangers, sometimes they're people she knows but it is always some unknown entity wearing these faces as a mask. Once Rose determines that she, like her patient, is on track to commit suicide within a few short days and pass on this curse to someone else, Smile joins the company of movies like The Ring and It Follows, movies about people trying to break a curse that jumps from one victim to another like a virus and that operates on a brief timetable, forcing the afflicted to desperately try and beat the clock. 

Some might fault Smile for its sense of familiarity but I say it is such a strong entry in its sub-genre that it'd be wrong to knock it for its influences. It doesn't break new ground but it's a good example of its type. Maybe an above average one, even. Ultimately Smile is a movie about coping with the effects of trauma, how trauma in all its forms can shape a person's life and how difficult it is to move on from it. Coupled with that, there is also a consistent thread in Smile of characters expressing confusion about or casual disdain towards mental health issues. Sometimes even outright hostility. It paints a picture of a contemporary culture that remains very willfully regressive in its attitudes towards mental health. 

As with other curse movies, Smile does have Rose discover a possible avenue of escape for herself but the fact that this potential "out" proves to be one that could extend her life but only at the unacceptable cost of inflicting more suffering on the world, only underlines the sentiment in Smile that there are no easy fixes. Even though this is a supernatural horror film, there are no magic words, no mystical trinkets, no occult artifacts that it provides to dispel trauma. Sometimes lives are ruined and they stay ruined, is what Smile seems to say and that is a heavy message to convey. 

Many horror movies end on a bleak, downbeat note so Smile is hardly unique in that regard but it does feel notable when such a commercial, mainstream one is so adamant in not letting the audience (or its characters) off the hook. There is an element of Smile, too, that says that no matter how much we might want to spare others the trauma we suffered, no matter how much we want to end that cycle of pain, that sometimes it happens anyway because life is messy and unfair. Enjoy the fleeting jump scares in Smile but also appreciate that it acknowledges the kind of enduring hurt that, in real life, smiles tend to hide. 

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