This would unsettle anyone, but it especially bothers Rose given that Rose’s own mother died by suicide many years earlier. That lingering trauma, and the fears and stigma that surround it, form the film’s most intelligent thematic thread: Rose’s fiance Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) admits that he’s researched inherited mental illness online, and harsh terms like “nutjobs,” “crazies,” and “head cases” are used to describe mentally ill people throughout the film. The idea that she might not actually be plagued by the same entity that killed Laura, and that her hallucinations, lost time, and emotional volatility might have an internal cause, seems to bother Rose more than the concept of being cursed. The people around Rose, including Trevor, her therapist Dr. Northcott (Robin Weigert), her boss Dr. Desai (Kal Penn), and her sister Holly (Gillian Zinzer), certainly seem to think the problem is more neurochemical than supernatural—that is, until it’s way too late.
The only one who believes Rose is her ex, Joel (Kyle Gallner), a cop who’s been assigned to Laura’s case. Their tentative reunion opens the door to the film’s mystery element, which makes up much of “Smile’s” long, but not overly long, 115-minute run time. The film’s storyline follows many of your typical beats of a supernatural horror-mystery, escalating from a quick Google (the internet-age equivalent of a good old-fashioned library scene) to an in-person interview with a traumatized, incarcerated survivor of whatever this malevolent entity actually is. Brief reference is made to a cluster of similar events in Brazil, opening up the door to a sequel.
“Smile’s” greatest asset is its relentless, oppressive grimness: This is a film where children and pets are as vulnerable as adults, and the horror elements are bloody and disturbing to match the dark themes. This unsparing sensibility is enhanced by Bacon’s shaky, vulnerable performance as Rose: At one point, she screams at Trevor, “I am not crazy!,” then mumbles an apology and looks down at her shoes in shame. At another, her wan smile at her nephew’s birthday party stands as both a bleak counterpoint to the sick grin the entity’s victims see before they die (thus the film’s title), as well as a relatable moment for viewers who have reluctantly muddled their way through similar gatherings in the midst of a depressive episode.