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The Terrifying Subtext of “Smile”
A Spoiler Free Review
Smile understands that mental illness feels like a haunting. That’s even more true for people living with suicidal ideation. Every moment of your life, you are followed around by an unseen force hell-bent on your destruction. Any trying to fight against that power, or even trying to explain it to a loved one, can feel like going up against a paranormal force of inimitable power.
The story of the movie is relatively simple. The movie follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Carter) a therapist who watches a patient kill herself, and who then becomes haunted by the same dark force which drove her patient to suicide. That force, as the film’s title may suggest, manifests as the victim’s friends, family members, and loved ones; all of whom appear with a horribly gruesome smile stretched across their face.
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The film itself is a straightforward jump-scare flick, but it’s laced with a deep second layer of meaning that strikes close to home at a time when one out of three Americans are experiencing elevated symptoms of depression. By way of its heightened premise, Smile takes on the perspective of a woman living with suicidal ideation. Throughout the film, she is grappling with the fear that she could kill herself at any moment. Her biggest fear is loosing control of her faculties. But the scariest thing in her life, more troubling than loosing control, is the expectation that she eventually give in to the pressures and “just smile” as so many well-intentioned friends may have suggested up until now.
Over the course of the film, we gain insight into Rose’s mental state and her past experiences with trauma. The monster that haunts her, we come to understand, feeds off of that trauma. Again we find that the monster is inexorably related to mental illness. Both draw their power from past moments of vulnerability and doubt.
Director Parker Finn acquits himself admirably behind the camera in his first feature film. In my book, anyone who has the gall to put me into a Dutch-tilt before the opening credits deserves the benefit of the doubt. But that was just the beginning of Finn’s work. That being said, his camera is never manic. His moves are deliberate and purposeful. His slow pan in on the top level of a hospital pain chart which reads “0 No Pain 😁” is one of the best zooms I’ve seen this year.
Ultimately, Smile is a modern horror movie for modern times. In an era when anxiety and depression are (perhaps rightfully) at an all time high, Smile asks audiences to look within. With the pressures of all aspects of modern life bearing down from every direction, it may be fair to suggest that the scariest thing of all is the expectation to “just smile.” And through their eloquent expertise, Carter and Finn take that idea to its most horrifying conclusion.
Sometimes a Smile can be the scariest thing of all