Director Parker Finn made a name for himself with “Laura Hasn’t Slept,” a short film that came out in September 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Smile, his feature-length debut, expands that short into the first mental health horror film of the late pandemic era, although it still exhibits much of the initial dread of lockdown. Sosie Bacon stars as Rose Cotter, a therapist who experiences a traumatic event in the opening scene. Confronted with an apparently deranged patient who claims to be haunted be an entity that “looks like people, but is not a person” and that “wears people’s faces like masks,” Rose goes through all the normal therapy beats, only for this young women to commit suicide in front of her – or so it seems. For Rose quickly finds herself haunted by the same entity, which doesn’t take any tangible form of its own, but instead twists the faces of people in her vicinity into a deranged smile. It’s a terrific horror-comedy premise – just absurd enough while remaining terrifying.
From the earliest scenes, this series of monstrous smiles channels the rhetoric of corporate wellness, along with its crushing inadequacy in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. As one character after another takes on the inane grins of stock photographs – “the worst smile I’ve ever seen” – Finn visualises the world that a certain kind of wellness guru wants. It’s a world in which everyone smiles maniacally in the face of imminent death, to the point where even the hint of a smile becomes a sign of psychic disruption, especially when it seems to come out of nowhere. As the film proceeds, this threat of a sudden smile grows more abstract, and more dissociated from the eyes and face, until it feels like it’s going to emerge, Cheshire Cat-like, from space itself. Gilles Deleuze spoke of objects and spaces being facefied by the camera, and Finn smilifies his mise-en-scenes in the same way, suffusing them with a kind of bland reassurance of normality, a vacant bourgeois optimism, that seems to smile back at us.
That synergy between the smiles and spaces of the film evokes a pandemic milieu in which the rhetoric of wellness has had to overcompensate for the paucity of the American public sphere, with the result that these smiles initially emerge from one of two types of space. First, we see them in the administrative spaces of Rose’s hospital, zones that exude the “soothing” anonymity of wellness décor. Then, we see them amidst cavernous outdoor voids, public spaces without a public sphere. When Rose first glimpses the smile, it bridges both these spaces – she’s inside her office, the blandest part of the hospital, but looking out on the plaza below, where she discerns a demonically grinning face in the far distance. As an emblem of wellness, smiles police the threshold between private and public, just as Rose’s job as a therapist encourages people to homogenise their personal disclosures under the guise of wellness. While we see many smiles throughout the film, the eeriest occur around these wellness institutions, most notably in a chart that maps pain from a frown to a maniacal grin.
The smiles of Smile thus reiterate the paucity of both the private and public sphere in American life by obsessively securitising the boundary between the two. The next smile Rose encounters is on the front cover of an old record that she finds at a thrift store. Staring out with blank grins, an Eisenhower-era family give the listener a clear message: the nuclear unit is the only proper way to regulate the threshold between public and private space. That makes a stark contrast to Rose’s house, which is cavernous, dark and conspicuously devoid of children. No surprise, then, that the smile makes its next appearance, when the alarm goes off, as the reassuring voice of a security consultant, who calls to check there hasn’t been a burglary. From the plaza-hospital sightline, to the old LP, to this consultant, the smile instills its nefarious wellness at the physical, psychic and historic thresholds of public and private life.
This trajectory also encompasses one of the more original and amusing assertions of the film – that you can actually hear a certain kind of wellness-smile. The second smile appears on the front cover of a record, as if encouraging the prospective listener to imagine hearing it, while the third smile doesn’t even have a visual component, and simply involves the comforting voice of the security operator. From this point on, Rose also tries to hear the smile as much as see it, starting with the recording of the patient who committed suicide, which she dials up loud enough to hear an ominous breathing in the background, at which point the smile manifests itself visually once again. Her next step is to see a therapist, in the hope that the talking cure will help clarify the auditory components of the smile, especially since, as a therapist herself, she’s well equipped to listen to herself talking, and to hear the significance of the smile through that second-order disclosure. As a result, the most mercurial thresholds between private and public occur in this therapist’s office, much as the therapist’s facial expressions dance around smiling, and almost coalesce into a smile, more elliptically than anyone else in the film. In fact, most of the other characters are quite circumspect with their smiles, especially Rose, who prepares for her nephew’s birthday party by applying makeup and practising smiling in the mirror. To smile, here, literally means to put on a different face.
Over time, Rose realises that her suicidal patient was just the latest in a chain of people who have been affected by this smiling-sickness. At first, it seems like all of them witnessed a suicide, committed suicide, and passed on the smiling curse to whoever witnessed their suicide. Like The Skeleton Twins almost a decade before, then, Smile presents suicide as a crucial site of mediation in American culture, not simply because suicide rates are higher than ever before, but because the fear and spectacle of suicide drives so much social media. In that sense, Smile is a kind of spiritual sequel to Truth or Dare, the 2018 Blumhouse film that focused on a group of teenagers who were driven by a supernatural entity to commit ever more precarious acts of brinksmanship. The film was an allegory for social media, capturing the way in which visibility often depends on vulnerability, on forms of self-disclosure that verge on self-harm, but it’s just as notable in this context for the inane smiles that appear whenever one of the characters is about to receive this supernatural truth-or-dare proposition. Here, too, there’s a sense that mediation, and social media, thrives on bringing people right to the brink of self-destruction for ever more extreme modes of self-disclosure.
However, Smile also documents an era beyond The Skeleton Twins, and even beyond Truth or Dare, let alone the contagion-mediation horror films of the 90s, which are a constant touchstone here, with many of the scenes recalling The Ring in particular. Finn captures this evolution through Rose’s gradual realisation that it is not suicide per se that produces the smiling-sickness, but atrocity exhibitions and trauma spectacles more generally. It turns out that one character has escaped the smiling-sickness by murdering someone in front of a witness, suggesting that committing suicide without a witness isn’t likely to do much good either. Smile thus speaks to a later stage in the evolution of social media when terror has become dispersed and normalised, but also more omniscient, requiring gestures of apoptropaic ritual to ward it off. To be mediated, the film seems to suggest, is to produce surrogate, alternative or deflective acts of terror in order to ward off the terrorist spectacle that is always circulating. Gone are the days of tasteful social mediation, replaced by the compulsion to endlessly redirect and restage the atavistic fears that underpin digital culture.
The result plays like the next stage in what Mark Seltzer described as America’s “wound culture.” Seltzer coined the term in the 90s, in response to the sudden centrality of the serial killer in popular discourse, but the phenomenon that he identified, of compulsive and abject self-disclosure, peaked in the wake of 9/11, dovetailing with what Richard Grusin described as premediation: the need to encompass all possible future catastrophes, of both society and self, to foreclose a crisis on the scale of the World Trade Centre from ever happening again. Two decades into the twenty-first century, Smile updates this wound culture for the late pandemic era, by pairing it with the inane smiles that insist that wounds are no longer possible. The smiles here are thus the wounds, gaping holes in flesh that both dictate that nothing is wrong and exemplify exactly what is wrong. In other words, this is wound culture inflected through a more contemporary conception of gaslighting, evoking a milieu in which the need to convince people they don’t have wounds has become the main source of horror.
As a result, Smile often recalls The Invisible Man in the way that it turns each stage of gaslighting into a discrete mode of terror, while attuning it to the legacy of the pandemic. The smiling-sick here are like the original Covid patients, insisting on symptoms that nobody else will believe, even on the brink of death. Rose, like the sufferers before her, is routinely rejected by the very infrastructure that is meant to care for her: doctors, fiancée, therapist and extended family. She’s forced to fall back upon an older romance with Joel, a policeman played by Kyle Gallner, although there’s no chance of this turning into a fully-fledged relationship again, since the only reason it’s reliable is that it has already been foreclosed, already relegated to the past. Rather than helping Rose to heal, future-oriented institutions like marriage, family and therapy turn out to be part of the problem, corrupted by the wellness machine into the main canvas against which the gaslighting horror evolves. Not only does Rose’s fiancée pathologise her as soon as she confides in him, but he stages an intervention with her therapist, who finally wears the smile for the first time during this exchange. Similarly, the first close-up smile appears at Rose’s nephew’s party, while Rose’s sister is the first person that she knows to exhibit the smile, and in the most sudden manner.
By the third act, it’s clear that wellness has become a tool of bourgeois complacency rather than a genuine system of care, meaning that Rose is also gradually jettisoned from backdrops that are either public or private in a traditional middle-class sense, and instead left to drift against interstitial voids of space. In one shot, the camera pans down from a diner sign to focus on her as she sits in her car on a road shoulder abutting a major curve on the highway, bereft of any clear spatial markers. We see this same any-place-whatever foreshadowed in Parker’s earlier camera movements, which offset the staid bureaucratic backdrops of the opening act with a series of redundantly flamboyant pans, swivels and tracking-shots that collectively evoke a more amorphous and dissonant spatial scheme threatening to break through. Smiling becomes a way of keeping this scheme, and the people who might inhabit it, at bay, while reiterating public-private thresholds along the contours of the nuclear family.
This forces Rose into two equally impotent gestures during the final act of the film. In the first, she dreams of passing on the smiling-sickness by murdering one of her patients, a man who’s paranoically convinced he’s going to die, in front of her head doctor. In doing so, she will become part of the same disingenuous wellness system, and ideally contain the smiling-cycle within the hospital, where doctor can pass it on to doctor at the expense of patients, in a chilling allegory of the way that medical establishments are forced to shoulder corporate mantras at the expense of coal front care. Yet there’s also a residual fantasy here that if Rose commits the crime in front of the head doctor, and forces him to take on the burden of the smiling-sickness, the system will right itself. In either case, Rose rejects this option in favour of its opposite – to go off grid, and retreat to a remote cabin, so that there is no possibility of witnesses to feed on her horror, meaning that, if she suicides, the smiling-sickness must end.
It’s at this point that Smile shifts into fully-fledged lockdown horror. For a moment, that takes us to a more conventional resolution, as Rose confronts the smiling-sickness by confronting the suicide of her own mother, who appears as a ghostly presence in this house. Yet that quickly gives way to the most terrifying image in the film – the appearance of the actual smiling-monster, which engorges Rose into its grin, before she returns, in the guise of one of its smiles, to consume Joel in the final scene. The final message, then, is grim – namely, that it’s impossible to traverse the rhetoric of wellness by traversing any one individual trauma, simply because the inane smiles of wellness impoverish the idea of genuine trauma to begin with. That finality is offset, however, by the conceptual richness of Smile, which feels like a franchise waiting to happen, a repository of other smiling-chains, distributed across time and space, that is only fleetingly and tantalisingly glimpsed as an entire cinematic universe here.