Trauma is a terrible thing and can effect the lives of people who witness or suffer from some kind of event permanently. Horror films are your best source of finding characters flawed by what ever it was that came to them and essentially broke them. These characters with trauma in them will do either doing one of two things: try to escape the trauma that effected them, like in the Nightmare on Elm St films where the parents choose to ignore their murder of paedophile child-killer Freddy Krueger, or they embrace it, like in the original Friday the 13th where Mrs Voorhees deals with the death of her son by murdering other kids, spreading her pain amongst many.
This film, Smile, based on the short film Laura Hasn’t Slept by Parker Finn is certainly a film about trauma, both historical family trauma, and the horrific trauma of a supernatural event.
Smile tells of psychiatrist, Rose Cotter (Susie Bacon) a passionate hospital psychiatrist who attempts to help a freshly arrived impatient, Laura (Caitlin Stasey) who claims to be being followed by an entity that can appear as anyone and has a horrifying smile. Laura’s has what seems to be a seizure and her behaviour causes a vase to be knocked over, she quickly recovers and smiles weirdly at Rose just before slicing her own throat open with a broken piece of the vase.
Laura had shared that she had felt this way since saw someone commit suicide by beating themselves to death with a hammer, whilst smiling, and this clue causes Rose to befriend police officer Joel (Kyle Gallner) who is her only help after she starts hallucinating, and alienating her boyfriend, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), her sister Holly (Gillian Zisner) and her family.
Together, they start to investigate the mystery of the smiling suicides, and after she is forced to take leave from work for erratic behaviour, she has plenty of time to do so, but the worse the hallucinations get, the more deranged she becomes. Will she survive whatever it is that is happening to her?
The first thing that really struck me about this film was the absolutely magnificent cinematography of every scene. First, some of the tracking shots are a magnificent combination of photography and CGI. One that springs to mind is when the character of Laura is admitted to the hospital, the camera looks down at her ambulance pulling up and her being extracted from it, then tracks up the building before becoming parallel to a window, which it then enters and a new scene begins. It’s almost seamless and a great segue. Finn also has this great sense of mise-en-scêne in so much as everything in the film is so deliberately placed and the choreography of each scene has a great sense of distance and segregation; was this due to covid? Perhaps, but it also increased the sense of solitude for the main character.
There was a lot of brave choices made, perhaps through the same reason, but there are so many facial close ups of the cast. It’s a brave choice for the cast to agree to have their faces appear on screen so big as modern cameras don’t allow for any imperfections to be hidden, but it also is to great effect, and the just a position of the agoraphobic images of distance mixed with the claustrophobia of the close ups keep the audience unsettled.
I think the cast are fantastic in the film with only one exception. Bacon is fabulous and her descent from highly-motivated professional to seemingly deranged person is palpable. Both male leads Usher and Gallner play their parts to a T, and even when they appear in various delusions they are solid. The highlights for me were Rose’s therapist, played by Robin Weigert, whose smile even haunts MY dreams and Caitlin Stasey, who played Laura, the first person encountered with ‘the problem’ who is so catlike in her skittishness that her fear can be tasted! My only disappointment in the film was, in my mind, the miscast Kal Penn, an actor who in some roles I thoroughly enjoy, but he seemed out of place here somehow.
The look and the design of the film are solid, and the soundtrack by Cristobal Tapia de Veer keeps the viewer on edge the entire time. The film has a really great two first acts, but starts to fall apart at the in the third. I don’t know exactly what I would have done different though, as normally I may have an idea of how I would prefer a film to end, but I just cannot put my finger on it. Maybe if I watch it a few more times I will be able to work it out, but for now, I would rather watch something like It Follows again, a similar in theme film that worked far better in my mind.
Disc: There’s a nice collection of extras on this Blu-ray Disc:
The Commentary by writer/ director Parker Finn is fascinating as it’s always great to listen to a commentary by someone who clearly loves the genre and what they have accomplished.
Something’s Wrong With Rose is an actual making of (and not a ten minute self appreciating love fest like many of them) that goes for almost 30 minutes and discusses the evolution of the short film Laura Hasn’t Slept, starring Lew Temple and Caitlin Stasey, especially considering it was during the pandemic (remember that thing) that preproduction started.
Flies on the Wall: Inside the Score is some dialogue-less images of how the sounds used for the soundscapes in the soundtrack were created. Akin to films like Saw, these are less music and more moods created with various atypical instruments to what a traditional music score would be. On the The Black Film Bluray, Scott Derrickson describes the soundtrack to his film as ‘childhood trauma’… Cristobal Tapia de Veer, the composer of this film has done the same thing, but different. As a soundtrack on vinyl collector I appreciate the moods created, but I couldn’t imagine ever listening just to the soundtrack.
There are two deleted scenes, one a far too long scene where Rose has a panic attack and sees ‘something’, and the other has Rose talking to Joel after visiting a victim of the thing. The first scene reveals the threat far too early in the film and would have lessened the impact of it, and the second is a two minute bit of fluff, character development that shows off the acting chops of the two leads but is unnecessary really in the grander scope of the film. Both scenes have commentary by Finn.
Laura Hasn’t Slept is the short film written and directed by Finn, starring Lew Temple and Caitlin Stasey about a young woman visiting her psychiatrist because she is afraid of sleeping, but finds that all is not what it seems. It’s a well cast and beautifully made short film that for just didn’t quite cut it as far as the story goes. Yes, I appreciate that there’s not going to be indepth character development in a ten minute film, but it’s more a card trick: what you have been presented with initially isn’t actually what’s happening and at the end you go ‘huh, clever’ and the impression left is the skill of the magician, not the content of the trick.
This film was reviewed with the Australian released Bluray purchased from Jb Hifi.