horror movies top Smile canada streaming paramount+ film movie review 2022 Parker Finn

Smile is a genuinely fresh, often terrifying and always engaging horror film

In his feature debut, director Parker Finn builds on themes and imagery from his award-winning short Laura Hasn’t Slept.

What’s immediately striking about Parker Finn’s Smile are institutional lines. The film opens in a hospital, with pink painted hallways. The pastel hues only slightly downplay the faint whiff of brutalist and modernist aesthetic. The rejection of nostalgia and the rigidity of function, characteristic of the architecture, becomes even clearer as the film’s gaze expands beyond hospital walls. When characters arrive at a prison location, similarly crafted in concrete, with a rattling train overhead, the parallels in form as they relate to function come into even greater focus. If this building style is intended to cater to its inhabitants and their needs, the hospital and prison have remarkable similarities that underline Rose’s (Sosie Bacon) fears and anxieties. 

Despite the meme-heavy publicity for Smile, which includes film actors photo-bombing live cameras at MLB games and an online hashtag contest to share your creepiest smile, Smile has a thread of unsettling realism; not in the sense that the film adopts a classical or naturalist form, in many ways it doesn’t, but in how it captures the mind losing hold of space and time. Rose works as a therapist in a public hospital, and one day, she treats a patient suffering from delusions after witnessing the violent death of her professor. The patient warns of a smiling entity pursuing her. By the end of their meeting, Rose suffers a traumatic experience that reminds her of her childhood. She begins to see the smiling creature, too.

Even before this encounter, though, the film’s style disrupts the audience’s sense of continuity. As Rose visits her supervisor, he asks her a question that abruptly cuts to an empty office and a ringing phone. How sound and urgency bridge this interruption makes it easy to forget this temporal jump and eases the audience into the film’s style, which utilizes jump scares across time and space to create a deep sense of unease. As Rose becomes more paranoid and exhausted, these continuity breaks increase the frequency and mix in with hallucinations and dreams.

At its core, Smile tackles mental illness’s internal and external struggles. From the film’s earliest moments, there’s a structural dismissal of the patients struggling with mental health. Rose’s supervisor reminds her that uninsured patients don’t have the same access to care, and a cop dismissively refers to Rose’s patients as headcases. As the film progresses, the stigma around mental health becomes sharper as Rose unravels. Her support system starts to collapse, as those around her are unable and unwilling to help her. 

Shooting in many actual locations in New Jersey, the film captures a heightened reality as it utilizes the urban landscape as a backdrop. The institutional echoes extend to another character’s home, a condo within a converted industrial building. Rose’s home, which she shares with her boyfriend, is elaborate and contemporary, similarly eschews nostalgia in favour of function and sleek materials. As the film leads toward Rose’s childhood home, we get hints of alternative ways of living by way of a large, Victorian mansion, where love thrived for decades before being violently ripped away. Do the film’s contemporary industrial designs represent a rejection of the past in the hopes of building a better future? Or, do their sharp lines and functional shapes further stigmatize people and ideas that don’t conform to strictly defined logic and systems? 

Rather than portraying mental illness as monstrous, Smile takes a different route. It brings us into that state of mind and its destabilizing impact while offering an external world structured to hide away and forget those impacted by mental health struggles rather than help them. While it doesn’t go so far as to suggest society itself makes people sick, rather than treating or caring for open wounds, it’s as if they’re allowed to fester in dirt and grime until they inevitably become infected. Then, the neglect turns to scorn and fear; the sickness is treated as onerous, to be hidden away and forgotten. 

Sosie Bacon in Smile
Sosie Bacon in Smile

One of the main reasons why Smile works so effectively is the sensitive and raw performance of its lead, Sosie Bacon. She captures the compassion and fragility of Rose with all its nuances. Already overworked as the film begins, before she even faces off against her demons, we see her frayed, overburdened by a deep sense of responsibility but also a system under-funded and under-supported. 

The film also contains some genuinely fresh imagery, though, despite some formal adventurousness, it remains within the confines of mainstream horror. In this case, that isn’t a slight as director Parker Finn pushes up against as many expectations as possible, subverting recent horror obsessions, rendering them both starkly literal and often ironically funny. Smile is an often terrifying and always engaging horror delight. ■

Smile, directed by Parker Finn

Smile opens in Montreal theatres on Thursday, Sept. 29.

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