In the tone-, scene-, and film-setting opening moments of Smile, writer-director Parker Finn’s feature-length debut, an emotionally disturbed woman commits suicide in a memorably gruesome manner: A disturbing rictus grin tattooed on her face as she slices her own throat with a pottery shard. As an example of what modern prosthetics can still do and CGI, for all its revolutionary advances, still can’t, it’s also a tour-de-force for the makeup team working with Finn, but all the lurid, horrific realism in the world means nothing without a compelling backstory leading to and from the young woman’s suicide and why she seemed to actively seek out someone to bear witness to her death.
Almost immediately, the witness, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a psychiatrist who works tirelessly as part of the emergency psychiatric unit of a New Jersey hospital, begins an increasingly rapid decline into mental deterioration and ultimately disintegration to interior forces both natural and possibly supernatural. She comes to believe that she’s cursed, and in believing she’s cursed, Cotter also believes she’s on a deadline to uncover whatever caused the young woman, Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), to commit suicide in Cotter’s presence before it leads to her own violent demise.
Smile sets up a familiar conflict between the rational and the irrational, with Cotter firmly on the side of rationality, science, and the natural world before she becomes convinced that her psychiatric degree, therapy, or prescription medications, aren’t the answer. Initially, Cotter turns to her fiancee, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), her immediate superior, Dr. Morgan Desai (Kal Penn), and later her own therapist, Dr. Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert), but they just see a woman dangerously unraveling due to a combination of unresolved childhood trauma and the more recent trauma of witnessing a patient’s graphic, nerve-shredding, stomach-turning suicide.
Liberally borrowing from J-horror antecedents like The Ring, The Grudge, and Death Note, along with American iterations (and remakes), most specifically It Follows and its body-hopping entity, Smile turns Cotter into a detective of sorts with a little help from an ex-boyfriend and current detective, Joel Caitlin (Kyle Gallner). With Cotter taking the lead, they begin to piece together clues and connections from Laura’s past, including a college professor Laura witnessed first-hand committing suicide. Cotter realizes something far more insidious might be going on: a viral chain (meme) connecting close to two dozen people and a supernatural entity that literally and not metaphorically feeds on trauma.
Smile delves superficially into the supernatural horror tropes, conventions, and traditions embraced by Finn when he developed the screenplay into a feature-length film, but despite a frequent lack of originality story-wise, Finn smartly puts enough of a spin on those tropes to make them feel, however briefly, like new again. Contrasting Cotter’s virtual brokenness with a near Herculean or superhuman survival instinct puts the audience firmly on Cotter’s side, rooting for her to escape the malevolent being behind the curse and its effects, not to mention spread the curse to an unsuspecting, unwitting witness.
Despite being a first-time director, Finn proves himself no novice, expertly using space, composition, and camera movement to create and maintain an escalating sense of existential dread. For example, Finn often avoids placing Cotter in the same frame with her dialogue or talking partner, cutting to emphasize Cotter’s isolation and aloneness. He also centers Cotter in the frame surrounded by indistinct hospital colors, practically looking straight at the camera, through the screen, and directly at the audience, in effect adding to an unspoken sense of unease and discomfort.
Ultimately, however, Smile stands, stumbles, or falls entirely on Sosie Bacon’s central performance. With the camera perpetually hovering a few inches from her face and her presence required practically in every scene, Bacon, the daughter of Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon, delivers a performance of remarkable depth, range, and persuasiveness. Finn puts Bacon through the proverbial wringer, eliciting up-close-and-personal anguish that rivals Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s in Theodor Dreyer’s classic of silent cinema, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.
Smile opens in North American movie theaters on Friday, September 30th, via Paramount Pictures.