Smile: turn that frown inside-out

What it lacks in originality, Parker Finn’s feature debut makes up for in blood-chilling craft.

3 October 2022

By Anton Bitel

Caitlin Stasey in Smile (2022)
Sight and Sound

Writer/director Parker Finn’s feature debut begins with a face in close-up, but not with the smile promised by the title. A woman (Dora Kiss) is lying prone and dead in her bed, and as the camera tilts and pans across the floor, we see a mess of spilt pills, empty bottles and unwashed clothes insinuating the story of her undoing, before the camera stops on the face of her ten-year-old daughter in the doorway. This girl is Rose Cotter, and what we’ve just seen is the primal scene of her trauma.

Now an adult (played by Sosie Bacon) and a psychiatrist committed to helping others through their mental illness, Rose meets a new patient (Caitlin Stasey) who, after claiming persecution by a malevolently grinning, body-swapping entity that nobody else sees, kills herself in front of Rose while smiling grotesquely throughout. Now Rose herself starts seeing the entity, which tells her that she will be next to die – or perhaps this is just an old emotional wound reopened and retriggered, and an overworked professional succumbing to the guilt and PTSD that have haunted her since childhood.

In other words, Smile comes overdetermined, pivoting ambiguously between psychological and supernatural frames of reference – although, given its status as horror, you can probably guess which of these explanations will ultimately be privileged. It also unbalances the poles between craft and originality, as Finn has to compensate with the former for what his film lacks in the latter. For Smile certainly fails to bring anything new to the strand of cinema in which a person races to find a way to elude or transfer a deadline-driven curse of doom (Nakata Hideo’s 1998 J-horror Ring and the entire Final Destination franchise being prominent examples), and it arguably has less to say than other recent entries in the subgenre, such as David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) or Andy Mitton’s Covid-inflected The Harbinger (2022).

Yet Charlie Sarroff’s fluid, canted camerawork, Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s unhinged score and Bacon’s nuanced performance of desperate breakdown all ensure that Finn’s film will keep the viewer rattled and on edge for the duration, in what is a finely tuned if derivative cross-country dash for catharsis, ultimately leading back to the remote, dilapidated seat of Rose’s trauma. And then there is that recurring forced rictus, ironically signifying the absence of pain (according to a chart in the hospital where Rose works), and turning upside-down the frown with which the film opens, in an unnerving inversion of therapeutic bromides. I smiled.

► Smile is in UK cinemas now.