The film opens with a woman lying on a mattress. The rummaged bedroom is equipped with liquor and pill bottles and cigarette butts. The camera pans around the room until it lands on a young child standing in the room. Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) wakes up from that dream. She is a psychologist with patients who are obsessed with death. One of her patients , Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), sees things no one else can see. She says this entity takes the shape of other people, sometimes things, but it always carries a sinister smile. Eventually, the session goes off the rails and ends about as horribly as you would expect it.
After this incident, Rose is a nervous wreck, and weird things begin happening. First, it starts with one of her former patients smiling at her. Then she begins to see random apparitions. She loses control of reality to the point she imagines things that aren’t there. When Rose tries to communicate her experiences to her husband Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), or her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), her concerns are seen as hysterics. As Rose searches for answers, she finds a demonic presence that threatens to destroy her life.
When folks are in the throes of depression, they are told things aren’t that bad, or they should smile more, or their experiences are invalid, and no one believes them. There is terror in being gaslit and dismissed. To express that, the film borrows J-Horror elements, particularly the passing of linked trauma. Like The Ring and The Grudge, Smile is about cursed people who have a time limit on life after they witness something they shouldn’t have.
The jump scares are compelling enough, but the script relies heavily on them. Would Smile have any foundation without them? If one must ask this question, the answer is probably no. However, the film is adept at unraveling information as it’s procedural in execution, almost like a Halloween episode of Law & Order. Each new morsel of information Rose gains adds to hair-raising visuals on screen.
The characterization is a problem, though. Rose is a doctor who loses all knowledge and sensibility when faced with this thing. She never got an opportunity to put the skills she’s learned as a psychologist to the test. Rose is human, so her reaction is normal, but that doesn’t seem wise for this particular story. Also, adding one disposable Black character is such a tired, cliché horror trope that has got to go. As one of the few characters of color, Trevor doesn’t die– he’s just forgotten about. The same goes for Kal Penn who plays Rose’s boss, Dr. Morgan Desai, and Rob Morgan (who makes a cameo—if you want to call it that). These roles are so insignificant that it wouldn’t have made a difference if they were cut altogether. They are there to service Rose’s character arc and nothing more.
The most significant hallmark of Smile isn’t necessarily about the horrors of trauma but what happens when you’re brave enough to address it and things still go wrong. That’s an interesting question to examine in the genre. The marketing campaign certainly built up expectations, but to me, it’s decent film with some terrific jump moments but not much else. It’s a mixed bag and something I don’t foresee being a part of the pop-culture lexicon in a few years, but it is one of the better scary movies to come out in 2022.