Smile’s ending, explained: ‘The movie teaches you how to watch it’

In some ways, Parker Finn’s feature debut Smile is a standard horror movie, where a central character (hospital therapist Rose, played by Sosie Bacon) falls prey to a supernatural phenomenon and spends most of the movie dealing with the increasingly terrifying battle to understand, resist, and survive what’s happening to her.

HoweverSmile takes an unusual tack at the end, with Finn’s script going in directions designed to shake off horror fans who think they can see the twists coming. After the movie’s world premiere at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, Polygon sat down with Finn and asked him to walk through the movie’s ending: What went into it on a practical level, how to interpret what we see on screen, and why he left out one detail that seems particularly significant.

[Ed. note: Ending spoilers ahead for Smile.]

What happens when the film Smile ends?

Rose first learns about the smiling monster that takes over her life when a distraught young woman named Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey) is brought to Rose’s hospital in a state of near-hysteria. Laura explains that she’s been seeing an “entity” no one else can see, a creature with a horrible smile that sometimes appears to her in the guise of other people she knows, alive or dead. Then Laura collapses screaming, clearly something over her shoulder that Rose can’t see. Rose calls out for help. Laura smiles calmly and cuts her throat.

Rose continues to smile at Laura from that point on. Visions and nightmares she has of her friends, screaming and smiling at Rose are part of her dreams and nightmares. Rose tells other people about the entity, including her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), but they believe she’s having delusions brought on by the stress and trauma of Laura’s death. Rose, her ex and Joel, a Kyle Gallner policeman, discover that there are many similar, horrifying suicides going back to the past. The pattern suggests that the entity haunts someone until they’re deeply traumatized, then forces them to kill themselves in front of a witness, who is traumatized by the death. The entity then starts all over again with a new victim.

A redheaded bearded man in a sweater sits on a hospital bed in front of pink curtains with the biggest smile ever

Image by Paramount Pictures

Rose and Joel discover one person that broke the chain, and they survive by murdering another witness in front of them and then passing on the entity to the witness. That sets up a few likely possibilities for the end: Rose can either sacrifice someone else to survive, like Naomi Watts’ character Rachel does with a similar passed-on curse in The RingRose can either fail to break it or the entity may win. Rose can then die in front of another person who is traumatized by the incident. Or she can face the creature and find a way to fight her.

In the end SmileHas all three. Rose, Morgan (Kal Pen), is horrified when she brutally stabbing a patient at her hospital. But that turns out to be a dream she’s having while passed out in her car in front of the hospital, and she flees the hospital and Morgan in horror.

Then she drives to her abandoned, disintegrating childhood home, where her addict mother died of an overdose — which Rose potentially could have prevented if she’d called an ambulance as her mother begged her to do, instead of fleeing in fear. The original repressed trauma and guilt over her mother’s death is what drew the smiling entity to her in the first place. Rose confronts the monster first as her mother and then as a huge, spindly, spinning creature. Rose forgives her mother for not helping her when she was 10, and she sets fire to the creature and her house, signifying her desire to let go of her past.

Joel returns her to her to ask her forgiveness for her behavior in dating and to admit that she was scared by him because he could see past her psychological boundaries, but he is back as an entity. Rose realizes she’s still at her childhood home, and never actually fought the entity or left — the entire confrontation she experienced was another one of the creature’s hallucinations. Joel is there, Rose escapes, realizing that the creature intends for her to commit suicide, then become its next victim.

The tall and spindly, spindly creature enters the house. It rips off its head, leaving behind something raw, shiny, with many toothy smiles. Then it forces Rose’s mouth open and crawls inside her. Joel enters the house and sees Rose quivering with kerosene, then turning his head to look at Joel. She sets herself on fire and dies, completing the chain and setting Joel up as the creature’s next prey.

What is the meaning of “End of Smile”?

SmileThere are several ways to deal with trauma. You can pass it along (as victims of abuse often do), or come to terms with the fact that it is there. Finn insists that Finn was trying to outdo an audience by creating a series of fake endings.

“Horror audiences have gotten so savvy, so I tried to put myself in their shoes,” he says. “What would I be expecting? What should I expect? And I tried to subvert that and do something that might catch them off-guard, and kind of flip them on their heads.”

Sosie Bacon as Rose running from a burning building at night in Smile

Image by Paramount Pictures

At the same time, the “It was all a dream” ending is a notorious fake-out in movies, so Finn had to make sure he justified that route early on, by making it clear that the creature could provoke elaborate hallucinations in its victims — and that it specifically used those visions to manipulate their behavior and heighten their fear.

“The movie all along teaches you how to watch it, and teaching that you can’t trust Rose’s perception,” Finn says. “It’s in the DNA of the movie to mess with the viewer a little. That’s why I really wanted to pay attention with the ending of the movie, and how it might actually feel. This is what I was open to. It was obvious from the beginning that I was interested in the entire story, right up to and including its most logical ending. I was also looking for an emotional outlet. Also, I was able to have both my cake and my supper. We hope you enjoy it! [the ending] delivers on that.”

Finn says he’s looking forward to viewers picking the movie apart, asking questions about what’s real and what isn’t. “But I also really love the idea that if something is happening in your mind, 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 her sister Holly all happy together. Then Rose’s father disappears from the pictures. It’s unclear whether he died or abandoned the family. Viewers could theorize that whatever happened to him set off Rose’s mother’s decay and led her to spiral into depression and addiction — but it could just as well be possible that he fled because he couldn’t deal with what was happening to her and how her mental health was breaking down. Finn stated that it was crucial for him to keep the question open.

“I wanted Smileis essentially a mom-daughter tale. There’s so much in the idea of [Rose’s]Isolation, where it is just her and her mother alone. I like that there’s the tiniest hint that there was a father, clearly, at some point, but it’s deliberately ambiguous.”

Finn says that too much detail about what happened to Rose’s father might have shaped viewers’ expectations or responses in ways that he didn’t want to bring into the story. “I didn’t want it to have undue influence,” he says. “Just the absence, that was the important thing to me — that the absence spoke volumes and really amplified the mother-daughter relationship.”

A short story that inspired Smile: Connections

Finn made an earlier short film set in that world. Laura Hasn’t SleptThe hoped to make its debut at SXSW 2020 was the. It was the festival’s first year of closure due to COVID-19. However, Finn managed to negotiate a deal to bring the festival back to life with Paramount. Smile Based on the strength and length of this short.

This is not like some films which evolve into features. Laura Hasn’t Slept doesn’t tell the same story as Smile. “I like to think of them as like spiritual siblings,” Finn says. “Pieces of DNA from the short film are threaded through the feature, and little Easter eggs here and there. Caitlin Stansey is the actress who portrays Laura Weaver. SmileLaura, the title character is Laura Hasn’t SleptAs well.

A woman smiles with devilish glee in Smile

Image by Paramount Pictures

“While the two roles, there’s a parallel running through them, they go in quite different directions. So I think it’s very fun. I’d be curious for people who have seen the feature first to go back and watch the short. They might see how the feature could almost be a sequel to the short.”

Audiences currently can’t see Laura Hasn’t Slept — it isn’t available for streaming or purchase at all — but Finn expects that to change soon.

“Paramount’s got it,” he says. “It will be coming back into the world soon. I think they’re gonna try to make sure that it’s out there and accessible in a lot of different ways.”

Is there a Smile 2?

Finn doesn’t immediately have an idea for a sequel, at least not one he wants to admit to. “I wanted the movie to really exist for its own sake,” he says. “I wanted to tell this character’s story. This was the most important thing to me. I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in the world of Smile. But certainly as a filmmaker, I never want to retread anything I’ve already done. If there were ever more, it would be this:Smile, I’d want to make sure it was something unexpected, and different than what Smile is.”

Instead, he’s currently developing other horror projects. “I’m working on a few different things, but nothing I’m talking about yet,” he says. “But genre and horror is always my first love. Genre films should be character driven, with some exploration of human nature and scary aspects of being human. That’s the stuff I really love. And if I can take that and twist it up with some sort of extraordinary genre element, that’s the lane I want to live in.”

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