Review: ‘Smile’ tackles mental illness themes against a familiar horror backdrop

Image via Paramount Pictures
Review of: Smile

Reviewed by:
On October 3, 2022
Last modified:October 18, 2022


'Smile' doesn't reinvent the wheel regarding horror, but it does offer up a smartly executed chiller bolstered by fine performances and plenty of jolting moments that is sure to please fans of the genre.

It’s a familiar setup: Our hero becomes the target of a curse, sees some freaky stuff, and must figure out how to put a stop to it before it kills her, spreads to others — or both — within X amount of time. That’s the basic premise of Smile. And while that may sound well-trod, the film working within established horror tropes represents both its biggest strength and its weakness. 

The “creepy curse” or “viral curse” subgenre, let’s call it, has never had its own name, but this film might just cement the niche horror category once and for all, since Smile represents proof that just because something is a cliche, that doesn’t make it any less scary. Case in point: The “paralysis demon” might be a staple of our collective nightmares, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying when one visits our dream world while we’re asleep.

Smile seems plucked from our unconscious along the same lines as a paralysis demon, and the film is similarly haunting, mostly due to its exceptional execution. Sure, it owes a lot to movies like The Ring and It Follows, and while those efforts do stand taller than Smile in the grand scheme of things, Parker Finn’s feature-length directorial debut still does enough unique things thematically and stylistically to stand out.

The story, also conceived and written by Finn, follows Sosie Bacon’s therapist Rose Cotter, who witnesses a traumatizing event. Following the incident, Rose is haunted by “frightening occurrences that she can’t explain,” as the film’s synopsis puts it. This includes seeing what she at first believes to be hallucinations of people who she knows wearing creepy grins and committing unspeakable acts. 

A major theme of the film is the contagious nature of trauma and mental illness, whether it is inherited or something that affects you through someone in your orbit going through it. Suicide specifically is a topic that is addressed in the film, with the aforementioned curse appearing to cause people to perish at their own hands by such a fate. While these sensitive topics are addressed directly in the movie, they don’t come off as overly trivializing or exploitative. Still, you may want to skip out on the film if you don’t find much pleasure in ruminating on these types of macabre ideas.

Extenuating these themes is the classic trope of the main character trying to find an explanation for the curse while others around her believe she is going insane, with Bacon’s great performance as a woman pushed to the edge of her wits helping to anchor the movie. The character has a fleshed-out background tying into trauma and mental illness that makes the theme of the movie feel that much more earned, too.

The atmosphere is another highlight. The music by Cristobal Tapia de Veer has an experimental and electronic feel reminiscent of Aphex Twin, which dovetails nicely with the imagery in the movie — of people creepily grinning — also resembling the music videos from that artist. Near the beginning, the pastel purples and grays of the set design of the psychiatric ward also establish the tone nicely. 

Dr. Madeline Northcott in Smile
Image via Paramount Pictures

A consistent shallow depth-of-field aesthetic by cinematographer Charlie Saroff serves multiple purposes under Finn’s direction. Multiple scenes offer close-ups of the actors’ faces with a soft-focused background that provides emotional weight. But the use of creepy things lurking in the out-of-focus background also creates plenty of jump scares and suspense-building opportunities that are executed well. 

Speaking of jump scares, there are a lot of them. However, most all of them are fairly effective and rarely feel cheap. This reviewer even yelled aloud at one in particular. Word to the wise, though: If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, consider skipping it, because it totally ruins what would have been one of the better and more creative moments of terror found within.

However, Smile has a lot more going on in it than wall-to-wall frights that will make it linger in your mind long after the credits have rolled. Many scenes wisely build up suspense without an immediate release, and some of the jump scares are even executed without the aid of a loud music sting, though there are plenty of those to be found.

The sound design in particular does much to build the creepy atmosphere, such as in one scene during a birthday party where the chorus of kids singing “Happy Birthday” reaches a sustained echo on one part of the song that dissolves into the electronic soundtrack. This doesn’t culminate in a jump scare, but gives the audience an excellent feeling of dread that sets the tone for creepy events that happen later during the party.

Apart from Bacon, many of the supporting actors also give excellent performances, such as Kal Penn, who plays Rose’s supervisor; Robin Weigert as Rose’s therapist, and Gillian Zinser as Rose’s sister, Holly, as well as a brief but impactful performance from Rob Morgan, who plays a character that offers a clue to Rose as to the nature of the curse. Caitlin Stasey also delivers a standout turn in the jarring opening scene that’s worthy of praise.

Some of the actors’ performances for a couple of the more background supporting characters were a bit wooden, such as the cops investigating the initial incident that kicks off the story, but their scenes were mostly so brief that it’s hardly worth mentioning. However, both the current boyfriend and ex-boyfriend characters — played by Jessie T. Usher and Kyler Gallner, respectively — had serviceable but middling performances.

The movie can also drag on a bit during the middle portion when we are learning more about the nature of the curse. In addition, a specific timetable for how long the curse usually plays out before its target dies is established that ends up feeling forced and unnecessary. By the time the ticking-clock element is revealed, the life-or-death stakes have been well established, and it only serves to make Smile feel particularly chained to its genre when it didn’t need to be.

The ending features a delightfully ghoulish entity. Still, it delivers exactly what you’d expect and not much more, despite some red herrings thrown in here and there to make you think you’re watching something more innovative than it actually is. 

Overall, while Smile wears its influences on its sleeve, the self-assured execution, universality of its creepy imagery, and nailing those oh-so-important jump scares that tend to translate to better box office receipts, make the film a commendable effort from Finn, especially for a feature debut that’s also an adaptation of his 2020 short film Laura Hasn’t Slept


'Smile' doesn't reinvent the wheel regarding horror, but it does offer up a smartly executed chiller bolstered by fine performances and plenty of jolting moments that is sure to please fans of the genre.