Smile takes the compelling premise of It Follows using a smiling presence rather than a chasing beast. As with It Follows, Smile sees its characters pass on a pursuing demon to each other, but rather than a creature constantly trying to catch you instead it’s a menacing, smiling figure staring at you. Unfortunately, where It Follows explores sex and promiscuity, Smile tackles the lofty themes of trauma and suicide without tact whatsoever.
People suffering from mental health issues are depicted as burdens, dragging everyone around them down before being abandoned without closure – the only option you’re left with is to die, though this also spreads the trauma and continues the vicious cycle, forever stigmatising the victims. It’s a nasty message, one that comes with insults like ‘headcase’ and ‘insane’ for good measure. Horror can use mental trauma as a worthwhile foundation if it’s treated with respect, but Smile throws that potential away.
Mental health representation is often problematic. Batman villains are often painted as maniacs who are carted off to an asylum as the stories come to a close. That’s no anomaly – mental health is often a tool in pop culture to paint people as monsters, explaining away ruthless behaviour. Smile turns that into a literal monster only the victim can see, as though it’s a hallucination. The parallels to actual psychosis are striking, and that’s why everyone around the main character Rose Cotter initially believes it to be a post-traumatic breakdown as a result of witnessing a suicide.
At no point does the film tackle mental health stigma, with only passing sighs to ableist language rather than anything of value. Even though it’s not actually a mental health problem plaguing our lead character but a real demon, it's rooted in mental health as it feeds on trauma, using that to jump between hosts and keep itself nourished. Trauma is depicted as an infectious disease that spreads, bringing everyone in the vicinity down with them. Even Cotter’s mother, who is separate from the entity entirely and suffers from her own severe mental illness, is portrayed as a burden she resents.
At first, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, assuming that Smile would take these themes and use them to show how unfounded mental health stigma is. That shunning sufferers only makes it worse and forces people to hide their problems, bottling it all up before it inevitably bubbles to the surface. Speaking from experience, that’s all I’ve ever needed – I grew up and continue to struggle with depression, insomnia, anxiety, and anger issues, but those around me are aware, compassionate, and understanding. Smile is none of those things.
Initially, the film presents a single option to escape the beat – kill yourself violently in front of a witness, to pass it on to them. Midway through, a second option emerges – murder someone violently in front of a witness, to pass it on to them. Neither seem particularly compassionate. The finale shows that there’s a third option – you simply need to go into isolation and completely cut yourself off from the world. The second that isolation is broken and Cotter’s character is visited by her ex-boyfriend, she sets herself on fire and continues the cycle. The theme here is that you need to separate yourself from everybody and keep the door closed or you put them at risk. Trauma is to be fought alone, and you shouldn’t involve anyone else. It’s a bitter and dangerous message.
Despite all this, Smile has been a success. It has an impressively high Metacritic of 68 for a horror with no major name attached, and topped the box office last week. Yet all Smile does is perpetuate harmful stereotypes about mental health, and that’s the most terrifying thing about it. Smile does little to grapple with the ramifications of the stigmas and attitudes it plays with. Cotter’s fiance calls her insane, ambushes her with her psychiatrist, and then leaves. There’s no resolution – instead, the movie shows he was right to step back. In stepping back he saves himself, as does her sister who also abandons her.
The ending passes the curse on and leaves the door open for a sequel, which given Smile’s success, feels inevitable at this point, and that’s worrying. Mental health as a villain is so normalised that Smile is flying under the radar, but it's a deeply problematic movie, one that flagrantly misunderstands what people with mental health issues need and deserve.
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