Smile review: killer concept fails to fully payoff

Chris Tilly
smile-movieParamount Pictures

Smile is a creepy curse movie that’s filled with effective scares, but thanks to some baffling narrative decisions, the payoff doesn’t match the film’s enticing setup.

The curse flick has a long and storied celluloid history, with recent examples like Ringu and It Follows combining terrifying horror with moral quandaries that place the viewer in the protagonist’s painful shoes.

Smile follows in the footsteps of those films, revolving around a terrifying concept that triggers an intriguing mystery.

But while there are impressive scares along the way, that central storyline doesn’t hang together, making for a frustrating viewing experience.

What is Smile about?

Proceedings kick off with a jump scare that joins up with later events but feels a bit cheap. We then meet Rose Cotter, a doctor having a very bad day. Her first patient repeats a mantra about death that hints at what’s to come. While her second patient suffers a manic episode and starts talking in riddles.

Said patient claims to be seeing people that no one else can see; figures who are smiling demonically at her. “It looks like people, but it’s not a person,” she tells Rose, in ever-more cryptic fashion. Cotter tries to reason with her, but the patient simply stands, smiles, and kills herself.

Rose takes that trauma home and tries to put it behind her. But the image won’t fade, and then she starts seeing smiling figures of her own.

Sick, twisted, and hilarious

Something awful has attached itself to Rose, destroying her world by wrecking her work and destroying her relationships. But the curse also provides a mystery for her to unravel, while precipitating a series of genuinely scary scenes, shot in a visually arresting fashion by first-time writer-director Parker Finn.

The first happens at her young nephew’s birthday party, involves a cat, and is as hilarious as it is sick and twisted. The second happens when Rose is freaking out in a car, while something not quite in focus approaches. It’s another jump-scare, but unlike that opening sequence, the moment is absolutely earned and will have you jumping out of your seat.

Combined with a creeping sense of dread, and some genuinely upsetting revelations – most notably information learned during a memorable prison visit – Smile is very nearly a great horror movie. But the film falls short thanks to some baffling narrative decisions.

A joke without a punchline

Trauma is at the heart of the piece, making characters susceptible to the central curse. Meaning Smile has a genuine story to tell, about attacking ghosts from your past by dealing with them head-on in the present.

But there are contrivances along the way that undermine those good intentions. While the film creates rules and sets up a story that demands to be paid off. When that doesn’t happen, it feels like something is missing, with Smile playing like a joke without a punchline.

So while the climax smartly circles back – giving Rose the closure she needs while at the same time setting up a potential sequel – it feels like the end of some other movie, while at the same time being a confounding way to close proceedings.

The Verdict – Is Smile good?

Smile is a movie that flirts with brilliance, without ever achieving it. Star Sosie Bacon goes above and beyond as Rose, whipping through every emotion imaginable as her predicament becomes ever-more dire. Her performance genuinely gets under the skin.

But Bacon is frequently fighting a losing battle, the narrative betrayed by an inner logic that fails, resulting in a film that’s never quite the sum of its parts.

Smile screened at Fantastic Fest and hits screens worldwide on Wednesday (September 28).

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