Lots of horror movies are about trauma. Some attempt to inflict it, but few explore and exploit it as thrillingly as Parker Finn’s feature directorial debut “Smile.” It’s not just smart, it’s not just skillful: It makes you unconsciously plead out loud in the theater for the characters to not do that, not to go in there, and just generally not, for the love of god. Even a hardened horror fan can easily get swept up in the the film’s tension.
“Smile” stars Sosie Bacon (“Mare of Easttown”) as Rose Cotter, a therapist working at a hospital that treats people in severe emotional distress. She’s been running herself ragged for weeks, barely sleeping, when her newest patient arrives. It’s a young woman who watched a man brutally bludgeon himself to death one week prior, and she says she’s seeing a mysterious entity smiling at her wherever she goes. Scarier still, within minutes, the young woman starts grinning like a maniac herself and then violently ends her own life while Rose helplessly watches.
It’s an experience that would traumatize anybody, but it hits Rose close to home. Her own mother killed herself when Rose was a little girl and the incident has brought horrible memories back to life. She even thinks she’s also seeing weird smiling people when nobody else can, but that can’t possibly be true … can it?
Without getting bogged down in rules and lore, let’s just say “Smile” is a film about a terrible curse, not entirely unlike the ones you’d find in “The Ring” or “Final Destination,” and it’s up to Rose to find a way to survive this harrowing haunting. Her attempts to uncover the mystery and figure out the mechanics are necessary for the plot to transpire, but they’re the least interesting part about the movie (although still pretty interesting).
What’s absolutely riveting about “Smile” is the way Finn consistently absorbs the audience in Rose’s foggy mindset. Her baggage is enough to fray her nerves and ours without any supernatural assistance. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff (“Relic”) covers the film’s action in sharp right angles, giving wide views of Rose’s surroundings and offering the audience a false impression of security. We know we’re in a horror movie, we know jump scares are in play, but we’re so eager to take a breather along with our protagonist that we’re constantly searching for peaceful moments, leaving us permanently vulnerable to shock.
And impressively, Finn’s disturbing screenplay and inventive staging concoct new and surprising jump scares at almost every turn. A film like “Smile” could have easily rested on its laurels and repeatedly tried to frighten the audience with unexpected grinning ghouls, but instead we’re treated to a veritable smorgasbord of twisted imagery. “Smile” doesn’t utilize jump scares to wake the audience up; it uses jump scares to wear the audience down until we are too exhausted to defend ourselves against the film’s many frights.
That is the say, Finn’s filmmaking gradually transforms the viewer into Rose. We all witnessed the same terrifying events, we are all privy to her horrifying hallucinations, and we could all use five minutes, just five minutes, to catch our breath before the next nightmare beg-OH MY GOD WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT PERSON’S HEAD HOLY MOLY.
“Smile” is a solid story, a little familiar on paper but impressively told in each aspect. Bacon understands the strength that’s required to live with fragility and she balances these aspects of her character with incredible skill. Supporting performances from Kyle Gallner, Gillian Zinser (“The Guilty”) and Robin Weigert amplify Bacon’s lead performance, supporting and subtly tearing her down as necessary. Jessie T. Usher (“The Boys”) plays Rose’s fiancé, superficially supportive without ever technically offering support. He repeatedly asks what he can do to help, subtly putting pressure on his girlfriend to tell him how to solve her problem instead of loving her enough to be helpful on his own.
Finn’s film understands that people transfer their trauma, and that trauma is isolating and scary. “Smile” pulls the audience into that state and uses acts of cinematic violence — not just images of brutality but brutal tricks of editing and sound — to keep refreshing the anxiety in our heads. There are shots in “Smile” that are as frightening as any you’ll find in established horror classics, but it’s the savvy build-up to those spine-tingling scenes that makes them all the more powerful.
This isn’t just a great horror story; it’s genuinely scary. You may be able to recognize familiar elements in its DNA, but it’s mutated into something distinct and unsettling. What a showcase of shocks. What a devilish debut.
“Smile” opens in US theaters Sept. 30 via Paramount Pictures.