There’s been a lot of buzz around “Smile,” the new horror film that pulls off its best scares through, as you may have guessed, creepy grins. The promotion of this movie was a lot of fun — photobombs of people smiling scarily in the background of baseball games and even on “The Today Show” — which is part of the reason I eagerly added it to my must-watch horror list for the season.
“Smile” follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, “Story of a Girl”) in her day-to-day life as a therapist. Her job seems more like a calling, especially because of her past trauma; she watched her mother overdose as a child and has never fully recovered. When patient Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey, “All Cheerleaders Die”) visits Rose’s hospital, Rose attempts to help her with what appear to be hallucinations. Laura describes seeing an evil entity that masks itself in the people around her. It changes faces, but one thing remains the same: It’s always smiling. While in Rose’s care, Laura is overcome by this entity, adopts an evil grin, and slits her own throat right in front of Rose. This “curse” is then passed onto Rose, who must defeat it before it kills her, like it did the chain of victims before her.
The idea of a demon spreading through and feeding off trauma is an impactful theme that allows “Smile” to unpack and analyze mental health stigma. When Rose tries to tell her husband Trevor (Jessie T. Usher, “Survivor’s Remorse”) what she sees, he doesn’t believe her. Later, he expresses concern — and fear — that she may have inherited mental illness from her mother. The inability of anyone in Rose’s life to give her the comfort she needs drives her off the edge — an upsetting yet relatable truth.
In an attempt to find comfort and feel normal again, Rose attends her nephew’s birthday party. She’s in the midst of a depressive episode but gets dressed up, puts on her makeup and forces a smile for the crowd — a relatable moment for anyone who has encountered a similar feeling of loneliness and loss. At the party, we get a glimpse of the evil entity masked as a guest with that same creepy grin from earlier. In a disturbing scene, Rose traumatizes the children at the birthday party, and she destroys her relationship with her older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser, “90210”) in the process. The message is clear, although told in horror-movie fashion with blood and guts; carrying trauma around can make you feel like someone that you are not, and it can affect those around you in the process.
What I love most about “Smile” is its nonstop eeriness. There isn’t much hope — everyone cursed before Rose died. This sense of disparity makes it clear that no one is safe: not children, not family, not pets. Rose isn’t safe in the daylight. She’s definitely not safe at night. Even in moments with tiny hints of potential happiness, Rose is still under attack. The trauma never leaves her. It’s grim, yes. But it also feels real. And it’s constantly terrifying.
The theme of trauma and its weight has been represented plenty of times in shows and movies — “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Normal People.” It’s not the most original idea; however, “Smile” portrays the sense of grimness that comes along with trauma in a way I’ve never seen done so well. Horror is arguably the perfect genre to convey such a message, and “Smile” takes advantage of this for its entire 115 minutes. Trauma is scary, and that fear spreads like wildfire in the theater.
Daily Arts Writer Laura Millar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.