In a way, Parker Finn’s feature film debut to smile is a standard horror film in which a central character (hospital therapist Rose, played by Sosie Bacon) falls victim to a supernatural phenomenon and spends most of the film dealing with the increasingly terrifying struggle to understand, to resist and survive what happens to her.
but to smile takes an unusual turn at the end, with Finn’s script going in a direction intended to put off horror fans who think they see the twists coming. After the film’s world premiere at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Polygon sat down with Finn and asked him to go through the ending of the film: what happened on a practical level, how to interpret what we see on screen, and why he was a detail that seems particularly significant.
[Ed. note: Ending spoilers ahead for Smile.]
How does the movie Smile end?
Rose first learns of the smiling monster taking over her life when a troubled young woman named Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey) is brought to Rose’s hospital in a state of hysteria. Laura explains that she saw an “entity” no one else can see, a creature with a horrid smile that sometimes appears to her in the guise of other people she knows, living or dead. Then Laura collapses screaming, clearly something over her shoulder that Rose can’t see. When Rose calls for help, Laura stands up, calmly smiling, and cuts her throat.
From that moment on, Rose sees Laura, publicly and privately, smiling at her. She has visions and nightmares in which other people she knows smile and yell at her. Rose tells other people about the entity, including her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), but they believe she is suffering from delusions caused by the stress and trauma of Laura’s death. Eventually, Rose and her ex, a cop named Joel (Kyle Gallner), discover a chain of similarly grotesque suicides that stretches back in time. The pattern suggests that the entity follows someone until they are deeply traumatized, then forces them to kill themselves in front of a witness who is traumatized by the death. Then the entity starts over with its new victim.
Rose and Joel find a person who broke the chain and survived by grotesquely murdering another person in front of a witness and passed the entity to that witness. That opens up some likely possibilities for the ending: Rose can either sacrifice someone else to survive, like Naomi Watts’ character Rachel does with a similar passed curse The ring; She cannot break the curse and the being can win, meaning Rose dies before anyone else takes the trauma upon themselves; or she can find another way to confront and fight the creature.
Finally, to smile has all three endings. Rose brutally stabs a terrified patient at her hospital in front of her screaming boss, Morgan (Kal Penn). But this turns out to be a dream she is having while passing out in her car in front of the hospital, and she flees the hospital and Morgan in horror.
She then drives to her abandoned, crumbling childhood home, where her addict mother died of an overdose – which Rose might have prevented if she had called an ambulance as her mother asked of her, rather than fleeing in fear. The originally repressed trauma and the guilt over the death of her mother drew the smiling creature to her in the first place. Rose confronts the creature first in the form of her mother, then in the form of a huge, scrawny creature. But she forgives herself for not helping her mother when she was 10 and sets the creature and house on fire, symbolizing her willingness to finally let go of the past.
But when she returns to Joel to apologize for pushing him away when they were together and admits he scared her for overcoming her psychological barriers, he reveals himself as the entity again. Rose realizes that she is still in her childhood home and has never actually fought or left the creature – the entire confrontation she experienced was another of the creature’s hallucinations. Joel arrives and Rose runs from him, realizing that the creature means for him to witness her forced suicide and become her next victim.
Inside the house, the tall, scrawny creature rips off its face, revealing something raw and shiny with a set of toothy grins stretching across its face. Then it forces Rose’s mouth open and crawls inside her. When Joel breaks into the house, all he sees is Rose, who spills kerosene on herself and turns to smile at him. She ignites herself and dies, completing the chain and setting up Joel as the creature’s next prey.
What does the end of smile mean?
to smile suggests that there are many ways to deal with trauma by passing it on (as abuse victims often do by abusing others), come to terms with it, or collapse under its weight. But Finn says the intention with the interlaced series of fake endings was to get ahead of an audience who might have been trying to get ahead of the film.
“Horror audiences have become so savvy, so I tried to put myself in their shoes,” he says. “What would I expect? What would I expect? And I’ve been trying to undermine that and do something that might catch them off guard and kind of turn them upside down.
At the same time, the “It was all a dream” ending is a notorious fake in movies, so Finn had to make sure he justified that path early on by making it clear that the creature could induce elaborate hallucinations in its victims – and that it created those visions purposefully used to manipulate their behavior and increase their anxiety.
“The film teaches you how to watch it all the time and teaches you not to trust Rose’s perception,” says Finn. “It’s in the film’s DNA to confuse the viewer a bit. So I really wanted to pay that off with how the movie ends, that what feels like an ending might not be an ending. I got into it. I knew early on that I was always interested in following the story to its worst logical conclusion. But I also wanted to have an emotional catharsis. So I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. Hopefully [the ending] fulfills that.”
Finn says he’s looking forward to viewers picking the film apart and asking questions about what’s real and what’s not. “But I also love the idea that if something happens in your head, it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not,” he says. “For that person, the experience is real.”
What happened to Rose’s father?
The film’s opening sequence pans across a series of portraits of Rose’s family, with her mother, father and sister Holly all happily together. Then Rose’s father disappears from the pictures. It is unclear whether he died or left the family. Viewers could theorize that whatever happened to him triggered Rose’s mother’s decline and sent her into a spiral into depression and addiction — but it could just as easily be that he fled because he didn’t could deal with what was happening to her and how mentally her health was failing. Finn says it was important to him to keep the question open.
“I wanted to smile pretty much a mother-daughter story. There is so much in the idea of [Rose’s] Isolation, just her and her mother, alone. I like that there’s the tiniest hint that there was a father, sure, eventually, but it’s intentionally ambiguous.”
Finn says that too many details about what happened with Rose’s father may have affected viewers’ expectations or reactions in ways he didn’t want to bring to the story. “I didn’t want it to have an undue impact,” he says. “Just the absence, that’s what mattered to me — that the absence spoke volumes and really strengthened the mother-daughter bond.”
Connections between Smile and a short film that inspired him
Finn previously made a short film set in the same world Laura didn’t sleepset to debut at SXSW in 2020. The festival this year was one of the first events to be closed due to the spread of COVID-19, but Finn was still able to strike a deal with Paramount to smile based on the strength of this short circuit.
Unlike some short films that develop into feature films, Laura didn’t sleep does not tell the same story as to smile. “I like to think of them as spiritual siblings,” says Finn. “Bits of DNA from the short run through the feature and little Easter eggs here and there. And then Caitlin Stasey, who plays Laura Weaver to smileis the titular Laura in Laura didn’t sleep also.
“While the two roles draw a parallel, they go in very different directions. So I find it very funny. I’d be curious if people who saw the feature first go back and watch the short. You could see that the film could almost be a sequel to the short film.”
Audiences are currently unable to see Laura didn’t sleep – it’s not available to stream or buy at all – but Finn expects that to change soon.
“Paramount has it covered,” he says. “It will come back into the world soon. I think they’re going to try to make sure it’s out there and accessible in a lot of different ways.”
Will there be a Smile 2?
Finn doesn’t immediately have an idea for a sequel, at least not one that he’s willing to admit. “I really wanted the film to exist for its own sake,” he says. “I wanted to tell the story of this character. That was really important to me. I think there’s a lot of fun in the world of to smile. But certainly as a filmmaker, I never want to repeat anything I’ve already done. So if there should ever be more of it to smileI want to make sure it was something unexpected and different than what was to smile is.”
Instead, he is currently developing other horror projects. “I’m working on a few different things, but nothing to talk about yet,” he says. “But genre and horror is always my first love. And I want to make genre films that are characterized by characters that do a kind of exploration of the human condition and the scary things about being human. That’s the stuff I really love. And if I can take that and twist it with an extraordinary genre element, that’s the lane I want to live in.”