Review by: Jordan Lester
PTSD is a battle that many people around the world are facing every year, and the stigma surrounding it has recently just started to clear. It would seem to a person with any ounce of critical thinking skills that the idea that someone would experience post traumatic stress after a circumstance that they themselves should not have been subjected to would be normal. Humans brains aren’t created resistant to traumas associated with things that we probably shouldn’t ever see. When a service member, a law enforcement officer, or any kind of first responder sees these things, it would reason that it is normal to experience stress related to the incident. The same goes for everyone, whether it be witnessing a car accident, extreme bullying, or the loss of a loved one. I could go on and on with examples. The point being that if we put our best foot forward everyday we can all lend ourselves to the de-stigmatizing of what I like to call post-traumatic stress, leaving off the “disorder” part of the formal diagnosis because the term in of itself leads to more stigmatization.
‘Smile’ follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who falls victim to a set of terrifying circumstances following her witnessing the bizarre suicide of one of her new patients. This battle leads to her unpacking her own trauma and how it affects her husband Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), and most importantly her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) who found her own way to cope with that shared trauma.
From the onset, I knew something would be different about this film. When the original teaser debuted ahead of ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, it was equally bizarre & intriguing. It also was exclusive to theaters. To later find out that the film was originally slated for a streaming release but scored so high with test audiences that it got a theatrical push is no surprise.
‘Smile’ has all the makings for being added into the “best horror movies of the 21st century” book. It’s bizarre, creepy, and most importantly shocking in a way that makes you think about the issue it’s discussing. At the midway point of the film, as the direction & message became clearer, it allowed me to fully immerse into Rose’s shoes, to re-experience the trauma with her. Like many good films before it this is a film best experienced with no distractions and an open mind, to put yourself in the drivers seat to feel the heartbreak, trauma and fear that the main character feels.
After all this is a horror movie and while it can be the best film about unpacking trauma, it would be a disservice to fall short in the scares category, which it does not. The eerie, unique soundtrack immediately put me in an uncomfortable spot the minute the film began, and it doesn’t let up. The scares are plentiful, and while some do fall prey to the conventional jump-scare, they don’t lessen the impact of the real frightening stuff. The fear of uncertainty is clear here, and showcased extremely well throughout. This specific attribute lends itself to the overarching theme, allowing general audience goers to better understand trauma by consuming it in a direct but not over the top fashion.
As Rose navigates the life after the incident, the presence becomes malignant, spreading her thin in a manner that is slowly ruining her. As she tries to run from the being/her trauma, it seems that it always seems to catch up. This is a feeling that people suffering from survivors guilt know all too well, which adds even more depth to this poignant story. Watching Rose getting ready and fake smiling in a mirror, as to practice looking happy, was heartbreaking.
Ultimately, ‘Smile’ feels like a horror film with heart, with a message that I believe many will identify with. I am happy that it is getting a major push from Paramount and I can only hope that some will find solace in the fact that the subject matter of the film was approached tactfully.