The Scares of Smile

Kaleb Smith, Cub News Writer

Horror as a genre has always been obsessed with trauma. If you go through a catalog of horror media, I’d argue a substantial percentage of it addresses the issue in some form. September’s Smile, directed and written by the debutting Parker Finn, fits into that mold well. By linking up the traumatic experiences of its main character Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) with some supernatural force that is bound to kill her, it directly talks about the negative effects trauma can have on a person’s life. The movie’s method for doing so is ruining her life entirely. Her career as a psychiatrist is ripped apart after a patient slits their throat during a meeting with an even, unsettling smile even though she was not suicidal. Cotter is distraught by such an incident, and her terror is intensified by the ravings of the dead patient and another one, both claiming that some supernatural entity was going to kill her. A fallout resulting from this terror alienates Cotter from her sister and nephew, her coworkers, and her fiance. The only one who sticks through is Joel (Kyle Gallner), the ex-boyfriend and police officer, and their reconciliation makes up the more personal drama, contrasted against the grim and almost existential dread of Cotter’s mortality. All of this is sold by the stellar performance of Bacon, who’s ability to portray someone who’s losing everything quite well. 

Despite all of those features, Smile isn’t exactly perfect; the most apparent flaw is in essence being no more than the sum of its parts. What I mean is, the film has many great scenes. The early scene of Cotter confronting that patient who kills herself is impactful and sticks thanks to the actors and camera work, and an entire set piece at her nephew’s birthday party contributes to the uncertainty which plagues Cotter, as well as just being plain disturbing. But that’s it. There are good scenes, they string together, but there is a failure to foster a strong continuity beyond plot. The most impactful idea the film uses is its namesake. The nature of whatever is haunting Cotter causes the speech and appearance of people surrounding her to distort, and they all share a sickening smile that is disturbing in a subdued way. Conceptually, this is stellar, and in execution, it is close to perfect, but what else does this film have? A story about trauma? Jumpscares? As we have exited the 2010s, movies with these traits are a dime a dozen, and some like It Follows simply do this broad idea better. 

Despite that kind of weakness, I truly enjoyed this movie from start to end. When I began thinking of it on a critical level, its impact lessened rapidly. But if you remain engaged it is not hard to meet Parker Finn on his level and appreciate the vision being conveyed.