Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, who does good work here, especially since she spends a huge chunk of the film in near-hysterics) seems to be living a perfectly normal life. Then one day, a patient walks into her office and tells a terrifying tale: she keeps seeing something. It looks human, but it’s not. Indeed, it’s able to even disguise itself as people you know — the patient mentions she once saw it disguised as her long-dead grandfather. All of this is plenty creepy on its own, but just to kick things up a notch, it’s revealed that this spirit, ghost, entity, demon — whatever you want to call it; it’s never really clear — also has a fondness for smiling. A lot. Spooky!
Rose thinks the patient is going through some sort of mental crisis, and she very well may be. But that doesn’t mean she’s lying. Rose is further traumatized by the whole event after the patient dies by suicide right in front of her eyes. Almost immediately, Rose’s life begins spiraling out of control. She begins spotting grim grinning ghosts wherever she goes, scaring off her new boyfriend (Jessie T. Usher) in the process. Not to worry, though! Rose also has a hunky ex-boyfriend (Kyle Gallner), who is also a cop, which means he’s great for serving up exposition in the form of old police files.
It seems whatever is tormenting Rose has a long, bloody history. But that’s not quite enough to get the people around Rose to buy into her stories. Worse, Rose can never be sure if she’s even talking to people she knows, or if it’s the creature in disguise. This tips the entire tale into the world of mental illness, a messy place even in the kindest of hands. Here, writer-director Parker Finn makes no attempt to really understand anything about mental illness; it’s merely on hand to serve as a plot device.
But Finn is also adept at serving up scenes that scare. An encounter with Rose’s therapist (a very game Robin Weigert) is unsettling, as is a scene where Rose visits a prison inmate (Rob Morgan) who might know exactly what she’s going through. And yet, “Smile” also gets lazy by having the majority of its scary scenes turn out to be nightmares Rose is having. Look, nightmares can be plenty scary! But if you give us a scary scene and then have the main character jolt up in bed, confirming that scary thing we just saw didn’t even happen, it kind of robs the entire endeavor of momentum.
All of this bugged me. But I also found myself nodding along in agreement at several of the film’s more effective scary scenes, despite the fact that it feels like huge chunks of story (specifically a backstory about Rose and her troubled mother) are glossed over or barely touched on. There’s real skill and artistry smiling out at us here. Too bad it’s buried under so many secondhand scenarios.
/Film Rating: 5.5 out of 10