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Smile’s take on mental illness was designed to be messy and complicated

Writer-director Parker Finn loves provoking an audience, even in a sensitive story

Robin Weigert as the therapist sitting in her office with a huge evil grin in Smile Image: Paramount Pictures
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Audiences may relate to the deeply creepy horror movie Smile differently based on whether they’ve had any experience with navigating mental illness, in themselves or in someone close to them. Smile is frightening in some pretty standard creature-feature ways, with a ton of jump-scares and disturbing imagery designed to give people nightmares. But it’s also in large part about what it’s like to carry the weight of anxiety, trauma, or other mental pain, and about how difficult it can be to convey that weight to other people.

“I think it’s so relatable,” writer-director Parker Finn told Polygon at Fantastic Fest, where the movie first premiered. “Everybody walks around carrying these things inside of themselves that are deeply rooted in them at their core, that are based on their histories and traumas. And I wanted to use that, and also explore what it might be like to have your mind turning against you. For me, that’s one of my greatest fears.”

Finn suggests that due to events around the COVID-19 quarantines, feelings of stress and anxiety have become their own parallel epidemic. “I developed and wrote and ended up shooting this movie all during the pandemic, when I think we were all traumatized and feeling a sense of isolation and a fear of transmission,” he says. “The idea that trauma could beget trauma was really present in my brain, and I think it just crept its way into the script.”

Rose (Sosie Bacon) standing outside a hospital room in which a bearded man in a cardigan sweater sits up straight on his hospital bed grinning like a maniac in Smile Image: Paramount Pictures

Because these feelings are so common right now, Finn feels they may be more acceptable to discuss than they were even a few years ago. “I think it’s something that as a society, we’ve all started to confront more. I think it’s in the air,” Finn says. “It’s something we’re all aware of: Everybody’s got trauma of some sort in their life, whether it’s great or small, things they carry around with them that they don’t talk about.”

The ways people have traditionally avoided dealing with or discussing some of those traumas is part of the movie’s central image: the horrible fake smile that’s a sign of something deeply unpleasant going on. “We all put these masks on to hide our trauma, which was very much a motif in the film, with the smile being a metaphor, a mask,” he says.

Smile’s protagonist, Rose (Sosie Bacon), deals with deep traumas, from unresolved childhood guilt and fear around her mother’s death to the fact that she’s being haunted by an invisible entity that can make her see horrifying things. As a therapist, she’s already used to seeing people dismiss her suffering patients as “crazy,” to the point of writing off their deaths as unimportant. And when Rose starts trying to get help in dealing with the monster, her sister and fiancé dismiss her in the same ways.

“I wanted to do something that felt like what it would be like to be to experience [a breakdown], to put yourself in someone’s shoes and maybe look at [other people’s experiences and traumas] in a way we haven’t considered before,” Finn says. “I think it’s a universal theme for everyone, this idea that we’re all afraid of not being believed, especially by the people closest to us. That’s terrifying.”

Rose (Sosie Bacon) wearing a light blue blouse and her brown hair pulled back tight gasps as she backs into a wall, standing next to a red telephone in Smile Image: Paramount Pictures

Finn wanted Rose’s behavior and her response to the events of Smile to be as realistic as possible, to contrast with the more fantastical elements of the story. So he consulted with psychologists on developing her character, and “had one read the script and weigh in.”

Part of the complexity of Smile is that while audiences are mostly seeing Rose’s point of view, and have little doubt that the creature assaulting her is real, it’s also possible to see why her sister, fiancé, and therapist would find her behavior frightening and even infuriating. Finn wanted viewers to feel a little torn between perspectives, but he was confident they’d come down on Rose’s side.

“I think it’s always a balance, but I wanted to trust the audience and respect their intelligence and their emotions,” he says. “And I love messy movies. I want people to feel different things. And sometimes you want to provoke them. Sometimes you want them to feel a ton of sympathy or empathy, but you always want to make it complicated for the audience. That’s when a movie is doing its job, right?”

Finn calls Smile “my attempt to add to the conversation” about mental illness and people experiencing internal crisis in ways that might be difficult for outsiders to understand or relate to.

“I think as a society, we’ve started to speak better about mental health and therapy and trauma, things like that. But we’re still not really there. It’s not something people understand. So I wanted to use this as a parallel and a device to explore something that hopefully would get people to think a little differently about what it might be like to be actually experiencing those sorts of things.”