Parker Finn’s debut feature film Smile plays with a simple but effective premise: A smile can kill you.
That should make for a very interesting narrative; Finn keeps the jumpscares inventive and expertly bumps up the anxiety and atmosphere by really drawing them out, but the third act stumbles into a different movie.
Director: Parker Finn
An inventive premise elevates this jumpscare-heavy Paramount+ original. But the ending gets in the way.
In Smile, which premiered at Fantastic Fest last week, we follow Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), an overworked psychologist at an emergency hospital who has her own dark past. One day she sees a last-minute patient named Laura (Caitlin Stasey), a Ph.D. student who saw her professor kill himself in front of her, and now believes she’s next. And then Rose sees the smile.
Finn takes a thread from his 2020 short Laura Hasn’t Slept, which also features Stasey in the same role. She tells Rose she’s seeing something—”it’s not a person”—and from there Finn treats us to a variety of unsettling scenes. Bacon is a thrill to watch as she fights to keep a foot in reality, and the amount of broken glass she’s involved with is truly comical.
The Boys’ Jessie T. Usher plays her fiancé, though he’s not given a lot to do, besides gaslight; there’s more focus on an old flame, Joel (Kyle Gallner), who is, conveniently, a detective who can help her investigate how many others have seen this smile.
It’s essentially a curse movie, and it stays close to the themes of It Follows (inevitability) and The Ring (a window of time), but it’s more interested in framing it as a curse that thrives on grief and trauma. Rose’s mother died by suicide when she was a child and she still carries the guilt, and worries that her mother’s illness might have been passed to her. But no one—not even her therapist (Robin Weigert) or boss (Kal Penn)—believes what she’s seeing. So is she having a mental break, or is something malevolent really out there?
Smile starts to investigate what this thing might be, and Rose learns there have been other similar events in Brazil, but we never quite find out what the evil is. We see a version of it in the third act, and one quick shot of the creature—designed by renowned FX artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr.—is stunning. But did we really need to see it?
Smile easily lends itself to public promo, which happened the weekend before its release: Creepy smiling people were spotted outside the Today show and at three MLB games, and Paramount set up a hotline to “report a smile.” For the first two acts, it is a legitimately scary (and darkly funny) film that wants to say something about trauma and mental health, but it never digs very deep on that front.
And then the finale is so deflating, after such a relentless buildup, abandoning the energy that made it exciting in favor of some big-studio ending. We want to see something good happen to Rose, but instead, there’s this half-baked ending that undoes everything before it.