This article is part of our coverage of the 2022 edition of Fantastic Fest, taking place from September 22-29. In this entry, we review the new Parker Finn horror film, Smile. Follow along with our reviews, interviews, and features from the fest in our Fantastic Fest archive.
Parker Finn’s Smile shook loose a latent childhood memory of an episode of The Smurfs from 1981 entitled “Smurf the Other Cheek.” In it, a mysterious creature of the forest curses one of the Smurfs with a red dot on his nose. The only way to remove the blemish is to persuade someone else to kick them in the behind, breaking Papa Smurf’s strict no kicking policy. The catch is the kick doesn’t clear the mark entirely but transfers it from the kicker to the kickee’s nose. It’s a toss up as to which is creepier, the shirtless smurfs bent over, pleading to be given the foot, or the idea that these smurfs, who were simply trying to be nice and help their friend’s complexion, were cursed to bear this outward sign of their shame.
Our desperate pattern-seeking brains store these perplexing odds and ends for moments such as these, a spare puzzle piece for a big picture that struggles to come together. Smile leaves a similar irk in the belly destined to leave you disturbed, quaking, and grasping.
Instead of a red dot on the nose, the curse of Smile is a red dot on the psyche. The scourge in Smile is passed via trauma, with each victim freeing themselves but infecting the next. Trauma is not as visible as an angry red pock on your face, but it’s equally repulsive. It’s evidence that life happened to you, and you were not equipped.
The film centers on Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a doctor whose childhood trauma spurred her to work in the psychiatric emergency ward. She keenly remembers what it was like to feel helpless, so now she is a helper. She sits knee-to-knee with the manic, psychotic, and emotionally disturbed and assures them, calmly, that they are mistaken. The impending doom they are feeling, or the monsters they’re seeing, are the harmless and irrational tricks of an unwell, disturbed, and uncured mind. A staggering reversal occurs when one of her patients gruesomely commits suicide before her eyes, traumatizing and marking her for the demon. As a doctor, she thought her responsibility was to be an emissary for sanity. Now, from the other side of the clipboard, her perspective is very different. What does it matter that the demon isn’t real to anyone else when it’s dismantling her life one buttress at a time?
Bacon’s deftly wrung-out, jangled performance of Rose never grants us any ease. Even before the demon infects her life, putrefying it from the inside out, Dr. Rose Cotter is stricken. She is overworked, underslept, and simmeringly hostile towards anyone who suggests taking time for her own mental health. Once hexed, the physical manifestations of her condition begin to express themselves subtly as if they are just under her control. She’s agitated and jumpy. She breaks a glass when startled; she snaps disproportionately at her sister’s passive-aggressive provocation. As she tenses and tightens, writhing at the end of the demon’s psychic tether, viewers may find themselves subconsciously mirroring, pressing their hands to the armrests trying to push themselves back into the seat.
Rose’s tormenter has the gall to claw their way into all of Rose’s safe spaces — they are a faint shape in the shadows, her sister’s voice on the phone, her therapist grinning menacingly, poised to pounce. As Rose pleads for someone to believe her, Smile evocatively lures you into her fraying mental state. Charlie Sarroff’s chilly cinematography will lull and unground you as it lifts and turns the world on its axis. The relentless and absurdly effective jumpscares will tease you into a state of primed paranoia. You’d think that would be a point when your adrenaline would top out, that you’d acclimate to Finn’s pointed, cinematic jabs, but the bastard never uses the same trick twice.
As pulses slow and irrational fears of Smile’s more fantastical elements subside, a sense of guilt and dread lingers. Viewers spend the film in Rose’s haunted corner, but you also can’t help but relate to the individuals Rose trusts who ultimately betray her at arm’s length. Her boss (Kal Penn) insists she take paid leave, her therapist (Robin Weigert) refuses her prescription, and her fiancé (Jesse T. Usher) insists he didn’t sign up for Rose’s hysteria. Smile keenly underscores the myriad of microaggressions that push trauma victims away inches at a time until they are entirely isolated. As a trauma victim, Rose loses her autonomy, credibility, and right to close personal relationships. The message is clear — we too often leave our loved ones alone with their demons.
Spoilers for that episode of The Smurfs, but Papa Smurf does break the woodland creature’s hex. He humbles himself before his subjects, kicking Hefty Smurf in the booty. Then, bearing the red dot, he marches, like Christ to Golgotha, back to the woodland creature. He finds the crone stricken, believing she still has the mark on her face. He says he’ll relieve her with a kick if she closes her eyes. Once she is no longer looking, he kisses her, and the red dot disappears forever.
The conclusion of Smile is much less tidy. Some wounds can’t be healed with a smurfing kiss. Smile’s wrenching, empathetic tour through the eyes of a trauma victim feels tense, jarring, and perilously unsafe. As unnerving as the impeccably executed jump scares of Smile are, nothing is as unmooring as watching everyone in Rose’s life disbelieve and detach, leaving her stranded. Demons thrive on our selfish tendency to contain trauma to a single victim. For us to emotionally invest in their reality is to let the terror touch and change us. It’s easier to reign in your empathy and avert your eyes from the ugliness of it all.