Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

2022 is officially the year of horror, as the genre continues its absolute domination courtesy of yet another excellent title. Smile, the memorable new flick from debut writer/director Parker Flynn, may channel The Ring by way of narrative, but the horrific imagery and biting humor is a brand all its own. The whole ordeal is a warped commentary on being haunted by trauma, passing it down from generation to generation. Many genre features have attempted to comment on trauma, but few have done it as successfully as Smile.

Doctor Rose Cutter (Sosie Bacon, Wyrm, Mare of Easttown) is still haunted by discovering her mother’s dead body as a child. Now deeply immersed in her long hours working at the hospital, Rose offers guidance for troublesome patients that may appear difficult to diagnose. A new patient arrives named Laura (Caitlin Stasey, Summer Days, Summer Nights, I, Frankenstein), the sole witness to a brutal self-bludgeoning of a college professor. While explaining her story to Rose, Laura has an abrupt freak out that results in Laura slitting her own face open. Weaving the connective tissue between Rose’s past trauma and this new emotional wound, Parker Finn emboldens the character of Rose in a beautiful way; Stasey then breathes heart and genuine desperation into Rose.

Coming home after this traumatic event to her loving boyfriend, Trevor (Jesse T. Usher, The Boys, Shaft), Rose begins seeing some of the things Laura had described before her untimely demise. What has she become cursed with? Everywhere she looks, Rose is pursued by the imagery of a wide grin, be it on the streets following her in the form of a disturbed patient, or a subtle smiley face on her coffee mug. Rose is given one week to recuperate from Laura’s encounter, and attempt to get her life back together. The smiles will simply not leave Rose alone. Questioning her sanity, Rose is gaslit by everyone around her including Trevor, her annoying boss (Kal Penn, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder), her bratty self-centered older sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser, Savages, The Guilty, 90210), and even her pragmatic psychologist, Doctor Northcott (Robin Weigert, American Horror Story, Bombshell). A horrifying event with Rose’s cat, Mustache, earned big applause in my theater; it also marks Rose’s metaphorical rock bottom.

Help may come to Rose in the most unlikely of places. Joel (Kyle Gallner, 2022’s Scream, Dinner in America), a detective assigned to Laura’s case, has a romantic history with Rose. By the time she arrives at his doorstep to beg for help, Rose is already deep in the throes of paranoia. Just one’s harmless, garden variety “fleeting moments of stress-induced hallucinations,” eh? Rose discovers that the truth to what is happening to her must lie in the past, and who better to help research than someone with connections in the force? Rose may still be engaged to Trevor, but she has always had better chemistry with Joel. Can they uncover the mystery behind the macabre smile, and rekindle their romance along the way?

If the narrative resembles The Ring, the film’s setup is equally evocative of It Follows. A creepy smiling person could appear anywhere to the victim, and take the shape of whoever it wants, even a deceased loved one. Similar to the following anybody of It Follows, there is ultimately no escaping one’s fate once ensnared. Could there be a way to beat it? How far back do these “chains” of suicides truly go? No one has lived longer than a week to answer these questions…

Smile does an admirable job of constantly ratcheting up the tension, making the viewer ever-conscious of what surrounds Rose. She is our sole window into the terror, so we are always in observation of her story as it unfolds. Where one expects the film to zig, it often zags. Shocking jump scares are effectively jarring, especially one that involves replaying a sound wave over and over again. The Ring this is not, and though it never tries to outdo one of the movie’s clear inspirations, Smile manages to shock and surprise in the home stretch. I found it rather audacious to end in this way—can we please green light a sequel already? Sparkling brightly with prime franchise potential, creepy-scary curse-centric Smile surely satisfied my sweet tooth for haunting, nightmarish horror.

Smile screened at 2022’s Fantastic Fest, and opens wide for audiences in theaters nationwide on Friday, September 30th.

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