If you’re going to be a nepo baby, you better work. The new horror movie Smile features a stunning performance from Sosie Bacon, who exists one degree away from Kevin Bacon, as he is her father (Kyra Sedgwick is her mother). Parker Finn’s debut film puts its protagonist through hell, and Bacon wears it well, which is to say her shivering, jumpy performance that is the film’s centerpiece (rare is the shot that is not trained on her) does much to elevate material quilted from extremely familiar elements.
Smile is cut from the same curse-movie cloth as The Ring: Rose (Bacon) is a psychiatrist whose patient kills herself in front of her after describing horrific visions of people with demonic smiles. “It feels like people, but it’s not a person,” explains the patient before taking her own life. Rose is powerless to help, and then even more powerless over the curse that gives her similar hallucinations and a strong hankering for suicide. That’s how this social contagion works: Someone kills themself in front of you and prompts you to do the same. Rose’s plight is underlined by her virtue—she argues with her boss Dr. Morgan Desai (Kal Penn) about his reluctance to treat an uninsured patient. She wouldn’t have even seen the woman from whom she contracted the curse were it not for a sense of duty that had her rushing back to her office after clocking out for the day when she heard her phone ring. So devoted to her job is Rose that, as her partner says, “She’d do it for free.”
The visions Rose sees are progressively more disturbing, and each scenario she enters (even her young nephew’s birthday party) sets her up to die or humiliate herself by responding in terror to things no one else can see. In its endless poking of its hero, Smile is perhaps most reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s 1965 movie Repulsion (Smile also has a droning, dissonant score and a predilection for arty, disorienting camera work, like a lopsided drone shot of a forest that eventually resolves with an inverted horizon). Of course, Smile owes a debt to other curse movies about social contagion like The Ring and It Follows, as well as disparate sources like Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” music video and Jamie Lee Curtis saying “trauma” half a million times while promoting the newest Halloween movies.
Finn (who also wrote the screenplay) audaciously horror-fies suicide, and Smile is accordingly a bleak movie with an unwavering downward spiral of a structure à la Candyman. Using such heavy subject matter in a popcorn flick will not sit well with all sensibilities, but by commenting on the generational reverberations of suicide (it’s how Rose’s mother died), Finn seeks to do more than exploit misery. Whether he passes or fails will depend on how emotionally honest viewers find Smile.
And Finn does have some really slick ideas under his belt, including exploring the disconcerting, face-distorting properties of a smile. It’s like a more primal examination of what makes clowns scary, so it hardly feels coincidental when Rose faces the kind of hideous humanoid creature with disproportionate bodily dimensions that It’s Pennywise likes to transform into in order to torment his victims. “You can’t escape your own mind,” Rose hears. That tracks. Her inability to see as others do is her ultimate downfall. Perception is what haunts her, as does humanity’s sense of civilization in our current solipsistic political climate. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but that seemed to be a subtle message embedded in a movie that is rarely not blaring its terrors in its audience’s face and ears.
I was impressed by Smile’s commitment to bleakness, but I didn’t think it was a particularly scary movie—it’s more sad than anything, thanks to Bacon’s terror-ridden selling of Rose. The jump scares sprinkled throughout play like inserted studio notes, though one of them, at least, was more amusing than any I’ve seen in recent memory: After a beat of silence, we cut to the opening of a cat food can, the pop resonating through the theater. Never has feeding one’s pet seemed more harrowing.