Smile: Unsettling exploration of trauma | Sunday Observer

Smile: Unsettling exploration of trauma

15 January, 2023

‘Smile’ is a 2022 American psychological horror film written and directed by Parker Finn in his feature directorial debut, based on his 2020 short film Laura Hasn’t Slept. It stars Sosie Bacon as a therapist named Rose Cotter, who, after witnessing the bizarre suicide of a patient, goes through increasingly disturbing and daunting experiences, leading her to believe what she is experiencing is supernatural.

It also stars Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Robin Weigert, Kal Penn, and Rob Morgan, as well as Caitlin Stasey playing the same character she played in the short film.

A feature adaptation of Finn’s short was announced in June 2020, and the cast was added in October 2021. Filming began that month in New Jersey. Originally set for a streaming release through Paramount+, the studio opted to release the film theatrically after strong positive test screenings. It was made available for streaming through Paramount+ after its first 45 days in theaters. The film had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 22, 2022, and was released in the United States on September 30, 2022, by Paramount Pictures.


‘Smile’ received mostly positive reviews from critics, who praised the visuals, themes, cinematography and Bacon’s performance, but criticized some of its jump scares and noted similarities to other horror films ’It Follows’ and ’The Ring’. It was a box office success, grossing $216 million worldwide against a $17 million budget.

‘Smile’ explores several themes and devices common to the horror genre, such as trauma, grief, and guilt. As the audience follows through the lens of protagonist Dr. Rose Cotter, she becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator, further blurring lines between delusions and reality, an area upon which she should, in theory, have a firm grasp as a clinical psychologist.

The concept and effects of trauma are explored at various levels. On a clinical level, Rose may be seen as experiencing vicarious trauma (wherein therapists experience trauma as a result of treating their patients’ trauma) as she treats patients.

On a more metaphorical level, the cyclical nature of trauma is seen through the antagonist monster’s process of causing one victim to spread their trauma to other victims. The deeper extent of personal trauma is shown through the multiple endings experienced by Rose as she confronts her more fully revealed past trauma, only to be forced to relive it.

Critics point out that the concept of being consumed by one’s trauma to the point that trauma manifests as an identity is observably common within the genre. As such, ’Smile’ has been thematically compared to other horror movies such as ’The Babadook’ and ’It Follows’, among others.

As Katie Rife from New York Magazine’s Vulture explains, “Smile is both an extension and a repudiation of the trauma plot, incorporating its traits and tropes while denying viewers the familiar catharsis of conquering the monster.” Indeed, writer-director Parker Finn chose to include multiple endings to the film as an attempt to subvert savvy viewers’ predictions related to the typical trauma-plot.

Critical response

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 80% based on 182 reviews, and an average rating of 6.6/10. The site’s critical consensus reads, “Deeply creepy visuals and a standout Sosie Bacon further elevate Smile’s unsettling exploration of trauma, adding up to the rare feature that satisfyingly expands on a short.”

“On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 68 out of 100, based on 32 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.

Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “B–” on an A+ to F scale, while those at PostTrak gave the film a 69% overall positive score, with 53% saying they would definitely recommend it.

Marisa Mirabal of ’IndieWire’ gave the film a grade of B−, noting its plot’s similarities to films such as ’It Follows’, ’The Ring’, ’Oculus’ and ’Final Destination’.