Among the primates, expect for humans, widening the mouth and showing the teeth is a signal of aggression. In humans, it’s called a smile, and I’m sure that anthropologists have made much hay about that behavioral disconnect between us and our cousins. Parker Finn, in his feature film debut as writer and director, also makes much hay about the darker side of that facial expression with the very tidy, and very effective SMILE. His psychological horror film, as all good horror films should do, explores a subtext that does not allow for the comforting remove of an unlikely fiction such as a putative curse working its way through the population. It takes on the terror of being traumatized, and how even the most well-meaning of people automatically dismiss as fantasy what a traumatized person believes to be all too real when it doesn’t jibe with what everyone else agrees is reality. It’s trauma on top of trauma.
Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) should certainly know what is real. She works a psychiatric emergency unit trying to convince people in crisis that their fears, however irrefutable to them, have no basis is fact. She’s dedicated and compassionate, with an empathy that sometimes gets her in trouble with her boss, Dr. Morgan Desai (Kal Penn), for referring patients without the proper insurance for treatment. When her latest patient (Caitlin Stasey) arrives claiming to see smiles on people who aren’t there and fearing for her life, Rose does her best to calm her only to see the young Ph.D. candidate slit her own throat right in front of her. It adds to the deep trauma Rose suffered as a child, and brings back into her life an old boyfriend, Joel (Kyle Gallner) who is assigned to the case. He’s the cop to whom she turns when she, too, begins to see people who aren’t there smiling in a way that is anything but reassuring, and her fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), and sister (Gillian Zinser) become convinced that she is cracking up the way her mother did before committing suicide.
Bacon is very good going from calm self-assurance to frantic isolation, and all the stages in between, with one hallmark moment as Rose is putting on concealer in a mirror and trying out a smile that will fool people into thinking she is fine. It’s not the evil smile she fears on other faces, but the emotional weight it carries is devastating, nonetheless. Finn keeps us just as off-kilter as Rose is, maintaining Rose’s point of view, and blending what may or may not be her post-traumatic hallucinations with reality. He keeps the emphasis not on the supernatural horror, but on how quickly one person can unravel when those she trusts most turn on her for her own good and for theirs. It’s the way Finn slips that one surreal tidbit into an otherwise reasonable scene with such finesse that it brings us up short every time. We are less sure of what is happening than Rose is, so that by the time we reach the finale, the sense of relief is overwhelming, even if not all our questions have been answered. It is, I propose, even better because of it.
For a film about horrendous suicides, there is still room for subtly, with a bloody wound creating a smile on a shroud, and the mug Rose uses at work sporting a smiley face. The tone is tense, but also hushed, with faint but insistent flourishes of inchoate sounds of menace and percussion signaling trouble, but not revealing if it’s from within Rose’s troubled mind, or the evil entity at work to drive her mad before finishing her off. Moreover, despite the effects and camera tricks that evoke the paranormal, it is when Trevor asks if mental illness is genetic and tells Rose after a deeply unsettling incident that he doesn’t want to sign up for a life of dealing with it that is the most gruesome.
SMILE is a slow-burn of a nightmare that maintains a relentless, but unhurried, pace that ratchets up the suspense as mercilessly as a stalking demon toying with its prey.