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Smile: Time for Trauma!

Posted by September 30th, 2022 1 Comment »

Smile (2022)
Directed by Parker Finn
Starring Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher and Kyle Gallner

The high mark for psychological horror in recent years is Ari Aster’s first film, Hereditary (2018). The genre has given us many enjoyable entries since then, but none have delivered as much tension, dread and visual allure as Smile, the first film from Parker Finn. Like Aster, Finn wrote and directed his excellent debut. Did Finn have a multiple award-winning veteran actress as his lead protagonist, like Aster had with Toni Collette? Nope. But he did cast an actress who’s destined to be a rising star in all genres, Sosie Bacon. The daughter of actor Kevin Bacon may not have Collette’s chops yet, but given more roles like Smile’s Rose Cotter and she will.

Trauma is the new monster in our society. It’s a monster that lives inside of each and every one of us to various degrees. From the get go, Smile puts trauma directly in front of our face… and smiles back at us. Like classic psychological horror films Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), this film’s first two acts leave us wondering what’s “real” and what’s in the character’s minds. Then, when the film takes a turn, we are left to wonder if our lead character will go the way of the most famous of all psychological horror leads, Jack Torrence from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and become the evil one.

Finn takes us on this traumatic ride with the perfect mixture of visual and aural stimulation, bludgeoning our senses with little reprieve. Our only breaks are the jump scares peppered sporadically through the film. His skill as a director makes other films utilizing this technique look amateur and pedestrian. (The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity franchises come to mind.)

“I wish they could have gotten Oscar Isaac for your role”

Bacon’s performance as Dr. Rose Cotter was so believable and heartfelt that I wanted to pause the film and walk up to the Dolby screen at my local AMC on opening night and hug her. One scene in particular encapsulated what the best films of this genre can do: create empathy for a tortured character who is an avatar for our own emotional scars.

The rest of Smile’s cast tries their best to keep up with Bacon in regards to acting skill and believability. Jessie T. Usher does well during his limited screen time as Bacon’s character’s boyfriend Trevor and, in a nod to the Aster’s aforementioned masterpiece, Robin Weigert does her best to channel Ann Dowd’s character from Hereditary. The only actor who delivered their lines without the conviction or motivation of the rest of the cast was Kyle Gallner as Joel. He seemed outmatched in scenes with Bacon, almost confused about what his character meant to hers. Even though his poor delivery of these well written lines took me out of the moment right away, I was rooting for him to change my mind as the film went along…. he did not. (To be fair, Gabriel Byrne’s Steve in Hereditary gave me the same vibes. Maybe this is just a necessary byproduct of an amazing female lead carrying a film?)

Hereditary isn’t the only well-made film that has graced the sub-genre of Psychological Horror recently. The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2015), The Lighthouse (2019), Saint Maud (2020) and Aster’s second film Midsommar (2019) are some of the best, but none compare to Smile and the way I felt leaving the theater. Some things you just can’t unsee and Parker Finn’s first film is one of them.

If older classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Shinning and new classic Hereditary are all A+’s, then so is Smile.

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