Is it possible for a movie like Smile to be insulting?
That’s the question I’ve spent a few days thinking about. I saw the movie. Realized the movie was about trauma. Waited to see what it said about trauma. Then left the theater feeling insulted. Here we are, half a week later, and the feeling has lingered. And brought up a lot more questions. First and foremost, do my feelings here even matter? Most people won’t feel how I felt. So even bringing this up seems kind of whiny and indulgent, a tad preposterous. At the same time, I’ve watched thousands of movies without ever feeling personally insulted like this. So what happened? That, at least, seems worth discussing.
The horror genre revolves around the invasion of the status quo by something abnormal to the status quo. In short, someone’s living their life, a monster interrupts. Sometimes the monster is literal, sometimes figurative. But it’s almost always symbolic. Just look at one of the genre’s foundational works: Frankenstein. Written in 1818 by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein features a scientist who uses science to bring a corpse back to life. The immediate symbolism is about the morality of science and reflecting on just because we can do something, should we? But the monster is also highly intelligent. When it tells its story, you see how people condemn and hate because of what it is rather than who it is. Any hope the monster had to be a decent person is spoiled by the cruelty of others. Both Dr. Frankenstein and the monster feel guilt for their actions and perish because of it. Thus, a cautionary tale.
Because the core of the genre is always the same (normal, monster, attempt to return to normal by defeating monster), there’s a lot of creativity put into the monster itself, the circumstances of the monster’s creation or arrival, and the setting of the story. And those things inherently allow the genre to be symbolically rich. Frankenstein involved science and the exploration of humans acting as monsters and a monster acting as human. Godzilla also involved science but looking at unexpected consequences (on a very large scale). Then Jurassic Park also involves science but through the idea of capitalism and parental responsibility (literally and figuratively). Then something like The Babadook doesn’t involve science at all but how grief affects the relationship of a widow and her child.
Of course, sometimes the monster is just a monster and there’s nothing deeper going on. In such cases, the value is in the entertainment derived from the horror genre’s general aesthetic, creativity, tension, and gory thrills. In the movie world, you see a lot of both. Symbolism-driven like Get Out. Pure fun like A Quiet Place. Smile is one of the symbolic ones.
The main theme in Smile is trauma. This is pretty obvious before it’s made explicit but then it’s made explicit. The demon feeds on trauma. It seeks out trauma. It creates trauma. It passes to a new person through trauma. Knowing what we know about the horror genre and how its monsters can be symbolic, how they become the embodiment of concepts and ideas, it seems safe to assume that Parker Finn, the writer and director of Smile, is making a statement about living with trauma. And that’s where my issues with the movie stem from.
Everyone we meet in Smile who has trauma either dies, is mentally ill, struggling, or a jerk. The demon jumps from traumatized person to traumatized person and wins every time. The only way someone survives is if they take someone a life and traumatize a witness in the process. Which kind of leans into the “hurt people hurt people” concept. In explicit and subtextual ways, Smile puts forth the idea that if you suffer from trauma that your life is pretty much over. The only character who suffered trauma and is doing “alright” is the main character’s sister, Holly. And Holly is presented as kind of the worst person in the movie. Even then, the main character Rose, trauma shames Holly, saying that Holly’s trauma isn’t at the same level as Rose’s own. Which is kind of true. Rose was living at home when their mom OD’d. Holly wasn’t. But Holly still has trauma. To trivialize it then never return to the character is…a choice.
And with Rose, what happens? Of course, she ends up back in her childhood home. She has to confront the memory of her mom. The monster, of course, takes the form of the mom. So it’s a direct confrontation with her core trauma. One in which she originally thinks she wins after setting the demon on fire, the house burning down, and giving a big, cathartic, “I’ve learned my lesson” speech to her ex. Except that was just the demon manipulating her mind. In reality, she’s still in the house, with the demon. The demon wins. And the ex arrives just in time to witness the end of Rose and become the next host.
Taken as a whole, Smile makes a pretty blanket statement that “once you’ve received trauma, you’re doomed.” Personally, I hate that. I’m an only child. My dad died when I was 20. My mom when I was 25. Cancer and cancer. It hurt a lot. 10 years later, it still hurts. It probably will never not hurt. So when I see horror movies explore topics like grief and trauma, I get it. Even if it’s not my specific form of it, the dramatization of this thing you deal with as a literal monster you’re fighting is familiar. Lights Out, It Follows, Babadook, The Shining, Us, A Dark Song—they all ring true.
But my trauma doesn’t control my life. It hasn’t ruined my life. It doesn’t demand or necessitate I traumatize others. I get not everyone has that relationship with trauma. It can be debilitating. It can be destructive. That’s why a movie like Smile—a movie that explores the destructive aspects of trauma and the way in which people try to “smile” through it until it becomes too much—is a great idea.
“Wait, aren’t you contradicting yourself?”
Let me give an example. The Babadook starts with a husband and wife on the way to the hospital because the wife is in labor. They crash. Husband passes. Then it cuts to six years later. The mom and kid are living a pretty good life but the mom is clearly upset. She’s still grieving her husband’s death. And there’s a part of her that blames her son. If she hadn’t gone into labor, her husband would still be there. She doesn’t want to feel that, think it, or believe it. But nonetheless, she does. It causes her to distance herself from her son, to sometimes be harsher to him than she wants to be. And the son doesn’t quite understand what’s going on but he is unconsciously aware of his mom’s resentment. There’s a very grounded way to tell this story. Manchester By the Sea isn’t the exact same situation, but it’s close, and is a very realistic, grounded, non-monster-y film. Instead of going that route, Babadook introduces a monster, The Babadook. This monster becomes the embodiment of the tension between parent and child. The mom, possessed by the Babadook, even attempts to destroy the kid. Thankfully, parental love wins out. She claims her son. Fully claims him. And stands up to the monster. In the final scene, we see how loving and bonded the two are.
Notice how singular Babadook is? It’s about how this mother and son respond to grief, rather than about grief. It Follows is similar in concept to Smile. Monster attaches to people, follows them, is seemingly invincible, and eventually does you in if you don’t pass it before it gets you. That monster doesn’t feed on anything. It’s not driven by anything. It’s the embodiment of anxiety. It’s possible to run away from it. It’s possible to pass it on. It doesn’t have to be your demise, even though it can be. The degree of “it can happen to anyone” added to the notion it’s possible to escape it or live a semi-normal life with it, means It Follows can discuss anxiety without being a judgment on anyone with anxiety.
Smile, on the other hand, is about trauma in a much broader way. It’s not like Babadook where we’re witnessing a singular, anecdotal story about the way in which trauma can consume someone. Rose is part of a larger web of victims who all have the same exact thing happen to them. And it’s not like It Follows where anyone can become stricken but at least there are ways to manage the anxiety. In Smile, everyone dealing with trauma is on the negative side of the balance sheet. You’re either miserable or making others miserable.
By being so totally cynical about trauma, I just think Smile ends up being kind of insulting to people managing their trauma. Almost as if it’s saying, “This will be you one day.”
“Okay, then, what could Smile have done differently?”
If it was just a demon that existed and it simply spread person to person and drove them crazy, that’s fine. If it decided to prey on Rose’s trauma and exploit that, that’s fine. Or if it was drawn to trauma but there were people who managed to survive this thing through some healthy choices they made, that’s fine. Change any of those things and the movie can be almost identical to what it currently is and be, I think, totally fine in how it discusses trauma. As is, though, it felt to me like someone was putting their finger in my face and saying “You will be like them one day.” Which isn’t a good thing to feel.
I know, I know. There are people who will think I’m being overly sensitive. “It’s just a movie.” There will be people with trauma who will say, “Chris, I’ve dealt with worse things than you and I liked the movie.” I’m fully aware this is a personal issue. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie. Or that everyone should dislike or that no one can like it or that it won’t be emotionally resonant and cathartic for some people. I’m a huge fan of Babadook because I saw how grief affected my mom. She was so stressed and sad and unable to find any sense of closure that when she received her cancer diagnosis it felt, in some way, a direct consequence. Except she wasn’t able to banish the monster. It won. So when I see Babadook, it really hits. But other people find it boring or trite or try hard. Someone with trauma may hate Babadook but love Smile.
Ultimately, all I’m trying to say is that if the horror genre is going to continue to lean so heavily on the monster as an embodiment of a specific aspect of the human experience, then hopefully filmmakers keep in mind what their movie might be conveying to people who have experienced that thing. Regardless of whether you’re dealing with speculative horror that involves science and capitalism like Jurassic Park or commenting on something as personal as trauma, if you aren’t offering insight into what we can do to learn from or grow from this thing, what’s the point? You’re just being bleak for the sake of being bleak. It’s not helpful. It’s not instructive in the “don’t be like this or do this” kind of way. It feels far more emotionally exploitive Which I don’t think was Parker Finn’s intent. Nonetheless, it was, in my case, the result.