I should say early doors, that it is entirely possible that this movie is the singular vision of one person and turned out exactly as writer/director Parker Finn intended. However I do feel like I have enough of an understanding of the way the giant disgusting industry works to feel relatively strongly that Paramount Pictures isn’t putting out an almost 2 hour horror movie that they’re not positive they can sell. Particularly when they’re putting money into weird viral marketing campaigns. So, with that aside, lets talk about the camel that is Smile.
Before I get into the issues I have with this one, I feel like it’s only fair to talk about what works first, and there are things that work to be sure. The concept on its (smiling) face, is genuinely creepy – and I wasn’t terrible surprised to hear that it was a short film before hand, because Lights Out worked much better in isolated scenes than in its totality and this kind of reminds me of that in that way. There are some truly unsettling and effective scene thought Smile, the majority of which were in the copious trailers, and one that doesn’t hit until the final moments of the movie. To spread that out across a relatively lackluster hour and fifty five minutes does not make for much to get excited about.
I will say though, there is a scene in the ending that absolutely bangs and if the movie had been more of that it might be one of my favourites of the year. Sadly, one good scene does not a good movie make. There are also some really great performances throughout; Sosie Bacon is great in the lead, and gives a pretty emotionally complex performance – for the most part. She reminded me a whole lot of Lili Taylor throughout, and I really appreciated that kind of off-beat performance. Caitlin Stasey is also great, albeit only briefly in the movie, and Kal Penn has a great and natural charm about him.
I imagine that the scenes that do work are the reasons the movie is seeing quite a bit of positive response, because when it works it does work. The other thing I see commented quite positively on is the thematic exploration of mental illness and trauma. Personally, I feel like the movie is getting an A for effort rather than credit for a real and meaningful exploration – how much of this is the fault of the studio or a bad script is kind of hard to tell, but it is there. The thematic exploration is also stated outright multiple times, seeming not to trust the audience with piecing it together on their own. It also creates an issue in the established rules of the world, and manages to simultaneously over and underexplain the smiling monster and there is some kind of disconnect between what the movie is trying to be about and what it is actually about.
Perhaps the biggest crime, to my mind, that this film commits comes down to the cat, Mustache. As soon as I saw that fucking cat I immediately required the movie to have a shot of that cat smiling with human teeth and really leaning into the wild premise and embracing a little absurdity. Instead, the cat is killed – as only true hack writer’s do – and used in a little fake out bit of nonsense, which I did not enjoy.
I will admit that it seems unfair to compare this movie to It Follows, but it really is the most obvious comparison the primary difference being that I quite like It Follows and found Smile a bit … tedious. A kind of funhouse version with a much less cohesive vision and made with the “assistance” of the production company and producers. Almost like seeing what Smile could have been in an alternate universe or something, rather than this pretty lackluster thing. \
A movie like this doesn’t need to be complicated, and should have a significantly more fun time with this premise. I think of something like last year’s Malignant, which runs about the same length but has a significantly more entertaining story that really leans into the goofiness of it all. There really could have been something like that here, and it does show through in more than one spot.
All in all, Smile just doesn’t quite put a smile (womp womp) on my face. I really wanted it to, but here we are.