If you or a loved one has ever been shown that video of that car coming around a winding road in a picturesque field with tranquil music only for a horrifyingly grotesque jumpscare to pop out at you at the very end, you might be entitled to financial compensation.
Were you a child who grew up on the internet? It was littered with jumpscare videos, chain messages that told you that you would die in seven days by a “little girl who suicided herself” if you didn’t forward it to ten friends, or those Creepypasta stories completely overrunning forums and Tumblr pages, some so powerful that they literally incited a true belief in them that led to a brutal stabbing of a 12-year-old girl by other 12-year-old girls. This produced a very certain type of internet horror that took on its own identity in the coming years. With video games such as Slender, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent (I’ll give that Amnesia is quite good), as well as films predicated on finding the supernatural in the cyber world, such as Slender Man, Unfriended, Friend Request, and the viral Megan is Missing. Most of these pieces of media co-opted by internet communities relied on emptily-shocking imagery and jumpscares, rarely having any of the depth needed to create something truly frightening beyond an initial jolt of adrenaline from a loud noise. While this sort of horror has improved in recent years with more effective films like Host and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair delving into actually haunting storytelling based around the internet, Smile has come about as a sort of hybrid creature, combining the knowledge of how this viral type of film should work and the vague emptiness that comes from it not having any more than a few tricks up its sleeve.
Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a psychiatrist working the emergency psychiatric ward of a large New Jersey hospital. When a young patient, Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), reports hallucinations of a smiling being stalking her after witnessing the suicide of her college professor, Rose then witnesses the brutal suicide of Laura in front of her. Soon, Rose begins to experience the same visions of smiling entities described by Laura, and with seemingly psychotic episodes isolating her from family and friends, she discovers, with the help of detective and ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), a curse seemingly dooming Rose to the same fate. Together, they search for a loophole in the chain to execute before Rose loses her grasp with reality.
There are flashes of greatness in Smile, particularly exhibited by the film’s truly jarring opening scene between Rose and Laura. It sets the scene wonderfully for a film that relies on a creepy premise, complete with a haunting central image punctuated by an act of shocking violence. Unfortunately, within its obscenely bloated 115-minute runtime, Smile never reaches those heights again, recycling that same image, and punctuating sequences with empty jumpscares as opposed to genuine frights. While said jumpscares are occasionally effective at first, they become incredibly repetitive very quickly. Also becoming repetitive are the “gotcha!” plot moments that, again, while effective the first time around, become rather tiring by the time they’re used for a third or fourth time come 20 minutes after the film should’ve ended. There’s a much leaner, much meaner film to be found here.
And speaking of its meanness, after the film’s brutal opening scene of suicide, the film never takes itself seriously enough to regain that sort of shocking resolve that made me think we were entering a much different film when the title card strobed onto the screen. While I certainly didn’t want a horror film about suicide to solely be bleak and depressing, there’s a level of dread to be found that’s set aside here to make space for abject silliness that is more interested in getting a reactionary in-theater moment (ironic given that the film was originally produced by Paramount Player exclusively for Paramount+).
But if there’s one thing that nearly brings Smile back from these problems at its core, it’s Sosie Bacon’s truly star-making performance as Rose. While, again, it can get silly at times, there’s never a moment where Bacon (the daughter of actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) isn’t wonderfully balancing the weight of both a silly slasher film and an “elevated” horror performance from something A24 would distribute. She is much better than the film given to her, and I really cannot wait to see more performances from her in films more deserving of her very clear talents.
Perhaps I went into Smile with too high of expectations from early reactions out of film festivals, or perhaps it’s come too close on the excellently demented heels of Barbarian and Pearl that I’m comparing it unfairly, but the truth is, Smile neither embraces its true viral nature to create something actually jarring, nor is it self-aware enough to be a silly good time like other Paramount Players vehicle Orphan: First Kill was. And despite a really wonderful performance from Sosie Bacon, this whole situation leads Smile into a “damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t” territory. Too obvious for its own good, but just transgressive enough in brief moments that make me feel genuine disappointment in how it’s not a completely lost cause, just an unfortunately misguided one.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.
In theaters September 30th, 2022
For more information, head to the official Smile website.