Parker Finn’s feature-film debut embraces its J-Horror roots
The horror genre contains multitudes. Almost infinitely malleable, horror can embrace the universality of myth and the granular specifics of culture. Something as seemingly innocent like a smile, a facial expression typically associated with tenderness, amusement, or even delight, can be turned into a uniquely disturbing image the longer it’s held, a seemingly simple insight Parker Finn embraced for his first feature-length film, Smile, a psychological/supernatural horror film that uses the “smile” of the title to increasingly discomforting, disturbing ways until all that’s left is a singularly bleak image of never-ending trauma.
After a stealth flashback hidden inside the prologue, Smile jumps ahead to the present day. Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a N.J. based-psychiatrist who prefers emergency hospital work to private practice, seemingly has it all: A beautiful life with her fiancee, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), a large, cozy home that stretches as far as the eye can see, and work that gives meaning and shape to her life. That level of equilibrium, however, hides a past defined, at least in part, by the loss of her mother as a preteen to suicide, and the resultant trauma that’s determined the shape of her adult life.
Driven, however, by an almost pathological desire to help, she works long hours, aiding one long-term patient fixated on death and dying though talk therapy before making the fateful decision to see one more, late-arriving patient, Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), an obviously unbalanced Ph.D. student. While Cotter desperately attempts to get a handle on Laura’s turbulent mental and emotional state, Laura succeeds in ending their conversation permanently, committing suicide in a harrowingly graphic manner as a stunned Cotter looks on.
As a science-trained psychiatrist, Cotter initially accepts Laura’s suicide as tragic, but not, as Laura argued in her final moments, spurred by an unseen, malevolent entity. Laura’s rant about witnessing a suicide of her own only days earlier doesn’t give Cotter pause, at least not until Cotter beings to experience a similar outbreak of the uncanny and the supernatural into her life, from maniacally grinning strangers and doppelgängers, to a birthday party for her nephew that goes sideways, leading to her already estranged sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser), to completely break ties with her and Trevor to coldly question the viability of their romantic relationship.
Taking more than a few script pages from the last 25 years of the J-Horror sub-genre, including The Ring, The Grudge, and Dark Water (among countless others), Finn turns Cotter from passive, reactive, potential suicide to an active, clue-gathering investigator, getting periodic assistance from her onetime boyfriend/police detective, Joel Caitlin (Kyle Gallner, A Haunting in Connecticut). She may have little time left (supernatural deadlines add instant tension and suspense to any horror film) and her fate may be sealed. Like better horror heroines, however, Cotter won’t go down with at least attempting to understand the nature of the curse and what connection it might have to her fate.
Finn smartly ratchets up the tension, suspense, and yes, scares through an effective blend of shocks (gruesome suicides ghostly apparitions, perpetually grinning doppelgängers), dabs of necessary exposition relayed at periodic intervals, and a reliance on Sosie Bacon’s singular performance to carry Smile through to its inevitable, inevitably bleak, nerve-shredding conclusion. In practically every scene, often shot in claustrophobic close-up, Bacon conveys Cotter’s deteriorating mental and emotional state with an inside-out performance that, in another time and place where horror wasn’t considered unfit for year-end awards consideration, would certainly garner her one or more nominations.
At almost two hours, though, Smile comes dangerously close to overstaying its welcome, throwing in feints, switchbacks, and narrative dead-ends to delay what audiences on the other side of the screen have already deciphered for themselves. To be fair, a handful of late-film, momentum-stopping digressions ultimately do little to blunt the final, catharsis-free moments. In Finn’s figuratively and literally haunting exploration of psychological trauma, grief, and loss, the abyss doesn’t just stare back, it smiles and invites you in.
Smile opens theatrically in North America on Friday, September 30th.