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"I'm (Not) Fine": SMILE, or When Mental Health Is The Monster

2022 was a stellar year for horror, and many films brought incisive social commentary along with the thrills and chills. Obviously, there are many, many spoilers here. Read at your own risk.

Some people throw around the word "trauma" for every little inconvenience in their life. Starbucks was out of their favorite flavor? Trauma! Long line at the grocery store and too few checkers? Trauma! It's important before we start to make it clear that not every bad experience actually counts as real trauma. I'm no mental health expert (either theoretical or managing my own!) but I found a definition that makes a lot of sense to me: trauma doesn't have to be life-threatening, but it has to represent a significant loss, affect the neural mapping of the brain, and feels inescapable by the person who experienced it.

On the other hand, there is so much stigma around mental health issues that many of us just try to ignore the trauma we've experienced. We bottle it up and keep on moving, telling everyone that we're fine. We power through. We smile.

That's what SMILE is all about: what happens when we refuse to acknowledge and address our trauma. As a horror movie, it's the kind of horror that I typically hate: frequent jump scares, and things that are out of focus in the background that suddenly move toward the camera. These kinds of movies mess with our fear of the uncanny - when we see something, and we know it's there, but there is something about it that we know, deep down, is wrong. Normally, this is the kind of horror movie I would skip, but there was something about it that appealed to me and I decided that I just had to check it out - and that meant that my friend Nancy had to check it out too, because there was no way I was going to see it alone!

Rose (Sosie Bacon) is a doctor works with mental patients who are experiencing intense psychological issues. From the opening scene, we are shown that Rose is working too much, not setting good boundaries, and is wearing a little thin around the edges. She insists that she's fine, and she clearly cares about the patients she's working with, but we know right away that Rose isn't giving herself the same level of attention and compassion that she gives to her charges.

And that, dear viewer, is exactly why Rose's story was never going to have a happy ending.

Aside from the perfectly executed tension, the effective jump scares, and the haunting premise, this film is about the dangers of not addressing your trauma. I mean really addressing your trauma. No stiff upper lip, no "I'm going to work through this on my own," but really acknowledging that what happened to you was real, it has a lasting impact on your life and functioning, and it deserves to be dealt with in a professional, supportive manner. You deserve to get the help you need. That's the message.

And it's why Rose dooms herself. After witnessing a new patient committing suicide after confessing that she's being pursued by some supernatural deity, Rose's life begins to unravel. She is seeing the young woman in the courtyard outside her office window and in the shadows of her home. She's seeing people that she knows and love twisted into smiling, seemingly demonic creatures with a terrible warning for her: you're going to die. But as her life unravels and she goes further and further off the rails, she insists that she's fine, that she doesn't need any assistance. In an early scene, she's talking to her former psychiatrist in order to get some medication that she hopes will suppress her "symptoms," but she is resistant to any effort Dr. Northcutt (Robin Weigert) makes to get her to talk about and engage with her trauma: not just the recent trauma of her patient's suicide, but also her long-buried trauma of her mother's death by overdose. She says matter-of-factly that she has "no interest in re-litigating that part of [her] life." This phrasing is important, as later we learn that Rose (then 10 years old) walked in on her mother after she had taken an overdose of pills, but was too scared to call for help and has always blamed herself for her mother's death. To re-litigate that event would be to give herself a reprieve from her guilt, and that's not something she's prepared to do. It's no wonder that eventually the malignant presence that's pursuing her takes on Dr. Northcutt's visage to further torment Rose.

Smile was based on a short film from 2019 called "Laura Hasn't Slept." While this short is tight, tense, and features the same style of scares as the feature length SMILE, it doesn't touch on the theme of mental health in the same way. Laura is speaking to her therapist about feeling pursued by a creature that "wears the faces" of people around her, friends and strangers alike. It's goal is to show her it's true face. This rolls into the feature film, but the "true face" of the creature (or entity or spirit or whatever it is) is created by the person being terrorized. It's borne out of their traumas and their fears. A key detail that many people miss is not only that the people in the chain have experienced a recent trauma that kicks off their haunting by the creature, but they all have a significant trauma in their past as well. Laura might not have been sleeping recently but the victims in SMILE have been carrying around trauma for years, and it's impacted how they set boundaries, how they behave in relationships, and their ability to be open and vulnerable with those they love.

The final third of the film sees Rose returning to her childhood home and encountering the monster in the figure of her dead mother, first appearing as she remembers her before twisting into a grotesque, misshapen creature. A key point of the pattern is that the person being haunted kills themself in front of someone else, thereby passing the trauma on to them; Rose thinks that by further isolating herself, sitting alone in her trauma, that she can protect others from the effects. But if the movie up to this point has shown us anything, it's that this is precisely the problem: rather than addressing her trauma and getting the appropriate and necessary professional help, Rose has been deflecting and denying the problem, pulling away from her support systems and isolating herself further and further until her destruction is all but inevitable.

Of course, the end doesn't come before we get a little taste of false hope. We see Rose struggling with the creature, telling it that as much as she is trapped by it, it is also trapped by her. She turns over a lantern and sets the creature on fire, running outside to watch the site of her deepest childhood pain burn to the ground. She gets in the car and drives straight to her last confidante: her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), a cop who has been assisting her in researching the chain of deaths that she has been swept up in. She's exhausted, but relieved that the nightmare is over and she asks Joel if he will stay with her while she just sleeps.

He'll stay with her, he says. "Forever."

As his face twists into the familiar sneer of the creature, Rose (and the audience) realize that the burning home was merely a fantasy. She flees from his apartment to find herself right back in her childhood home, the creature there with her, this little taste of hope it's newest, and most effective, torment. We want to believe that we are strong enough to handle our trauma on our own, that we don't need help. There is so much stigma associated with getting help that so many of us decide that we will find our own solution.

But in this case, the problem is bigger than Rose can handle on her own. Throughout the film, everyone is Rose's life has reached out to her, begging her to get help: her therapist, her partner Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), her boss at the hospital (Kal Penn), her older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), and for every plea that does unheeded, the creature goes stronger. Rose becomes disconnected from those who support her, and in the case of her therapist and sister, the creature even takes on their visage in order to torment Rose.

While Joel doesn't push Rose to get formal help, he at least tries to support her. Their own failed relationship is hinted at being one of the many ripples of Rose's childhood trauma, and Joel potentially has trauma of his own that he isn't facing. He joins Rose on her mission to solve the problem herself, suggesting that he has a similar approach to how he deals with the trauma in his own life - which also makes him the perfect person to become the next link in the chain.

Rose was never going to have a happy ending. As she realizes that the creature has tricked her and that she is still trapped in the cycle of trauma and isolation, the creature unhinges its monstrous jaw and devours her. Then we cut to Joel outside; he's followed Rose to the house and is there trying to save her. Instead he finds her with a bottle of gasoline and a box of matches, and the cycle is set to begin again.

After the movie, over appetizers at Appleby's, Nancy and I debated the end of the movie. She thought Rose deserved a happy ending: she'd faced the monster! She worked through the trauma and came face to face with her mother, declaring that the mother's death wasn't her fault. She was a child! And that's why the fake "happy ending" with Joel in his apartment is so effective: it seems like she's done "the thing" that's going to break the curse and stop the cycle of trauma and harm.

But that is exactly the point about trauma and stigma: we valorize those who struggle through on their own, solving their own problems, and emerge from the ashes of their painful experiences. But every interaction in the film has made it very clear: Rose can't isolate herself and face this alone if she wants to survive. Every single time Rose is offered help, she declines. Every single time someone asks her to talk about and engage with her trauma, she insists that she's "fine." And minute by minute, we see her unraveling. To allow Rose to fully isolate herself from everyone (represented by hiding out in her abandoned childhood home) and somehow emerge victorious would have completely discredited every moment of the film before then. It might be the ending that we want, but it's not the ending we needed.

We, the audience, need to see that the stigma around getting help for our mental health is not only hurtful and cruel to those who are suffering, it can be deadly. The monster represented in the film is the monster of our own minds, the ones that tell us we aren't worthy of help and support, that we should be strong enough to solve our problems on our own. Breaking out of that cycle of belief is the only way to truly survive and begin to thrive.

You deserve to be here, and you deserve to have your trauma acknowledged and treated. You don't have to struggle on your own, and you don't deserve to feel judged for seeking the help that will put you on the path to healing.

You deserve to smile. Not because you're covering something up, but because you're working through your pain and coming into your joy.

988 is the number for the Suicide & Crisis Life Line. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and/or thoughts of suicide, please call. You deserve to be here.


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