Best new movie
When a psychiatric doctor watches as her patient commit a violent and disturbing suicide in front of her, she begins to experience host of horrifying and increasingly hostile hallucinations which lead her to believe that she is being haunted by a supernatural presence. Filmmaker Parker Finn makes his feature length debut with Smile, an effective horror film that reveals an emerging director who possesses a strong sense for creating unsettling imagery, most notably the recurrent eponymous smile that reveals that the entity is present. Finn should also be commended for delivering well-worn horror tropes in a fresh approach; this film doesn’t reinvent any wheels, but does give them some fresh tires. The big jump scares are well earned and paced, with the film’s cuts methodically building tension and then sharply releasing it. The scares are paced masterfully through the editing of Elliot Greenberg and aided by the chilling score composed by Cristobal Tapia de Veer. While inventively made and well executed, Smile’s plot does owe a debt to other curse-oriented horror films such as Gore Verbinksi’s The Ring and especially David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, where the looming threat of an inevitable supernatural catastrophe creates an overbearing sense of dread. While there is nothing wrong with a filmmaker showing their influences on their sleeve, horror cinema has been a breeding ground for bold swings and original ideas in recent years, giving opportunities to some of the most exciting voices working in film today.
Sosie Bacon leads the film as the cursed psychologist, Dr. Rose Cotter, and gives a committed turn that feels like an authentic portrayal of a person on the brink of their sanity, as she grows more haunted and dishevelled through the course of the film. Bacon brings shades of other well-regarded performances that have been at the centre of acclaimed horror films, echoing Toni Collette’s highly praised showcase of unhinged hysteria in Ari Aster’s modern classic Hereditary, as well as Elizabeth Moss’ stellar work in Leigh Whannell’s recent Invisible Man remake. The rest of the cast does their jobs well and know what type of film they’re in, with all the seemingly possessed characters brought creepily to life and the people wanting to help Rose are all sympathetic to her, until they become understandably concerned and distant to her apparent lapse in mental stability.
Horror has for a long time been a reliably mainstream genre that is able to sub textually dig in to deeper themes and allows for directors to be inspired in their filmmaking sensibilities. While the ghost train jumps and thrills are the primary focus of this film, it makes attempts at delving into the real anguish one goes through after living through a traumatic event by exploring such a scarring experience through a supernatural lens, and Finn also creates allusions towards the treatment that people going through mental health crises can receive from others around them. The film also succeeds in not giving the characters an easily earned or convenient resolution, and that it sticks with the established rules that have been presented. It is wise of Finn to have included these more resonant themes, or to have opted for a more convoluted happy ending, as these are the decisions that separate memorable works of horror from the more generic entries to the genre. It is a sign that Finn may be director worth paying attention to.
Smile may not be a bold new take on horror, but it is a well made thriller that makes for a perfect night out during the Halloween season, and may signal the arrival of an exciting new voice in the genre.
On the small screen
Network sitcoms have, for the most part, fallen out of fashion over the last decade, with “prestige” programming from cable outlets and streaming services dominating airwaves and holding the audience’s attention, and with television comedy moving away from aiming at a broad audience towards smaller niches. However, Quinta Brunson, the writer and star of ABC’s new hit sitcom Abbott Elementary, which is currently airing its excellent second season, has proven that there is still a demand for universal comedy if the quality is there. Set in a struggling elementary school in south Philadelphia, Abbott follows a group of teachers with very different personalities who’re all bonded through their love of teaching. Shot in the mockumentary style that has become so popular in the sitcom genre, Abbott shows us how the school’s staff deals with the everyday trials that working at an underfunded school throws at them, while also going into aspects of the character’s personal lives away from work. Brunson leads the ensemble cast as Janine, the young and idealistic member of staff. Elsewhere, Tyler James Williams stars as the charming but tightly wound Gregory, who takes part in a will-they-won’t-they relationship with Janine. Then there is also Sheryl Lee Randolph, who won an Emmy for her performance as the experienced, matriarchal teacher Barbara and Janelle James scenes as the witty and wild principal Ava, while the rest of the supporting cast are also very strong.
Brunson has mentioned many times in interviews that she has a strong affection for network sitcoms and that affection shines through in this series, with influences from other hits in the genre like The Office and especially Parks & Recreation – which has seemingly influenced Abbott in having a perpetually feel-good charm. However, where Abbott has separated itself from these other shows is in its confidence straight out of the gate. Many sitcoms’ debut seasons are uneven to say the least as they haven’t established their characters or found the comedic voice that will carry the show for years on end. Abbott had no such growing pains, with the cast and tone of the show finding its groove almost immediately. And yet the second season has still managed to improve on the first; the actors in the ensemble have managed to find unique little quirks in their characters that make them more distinctive from other stock sitcom characters, while the writing has gotten sharper and more specific to the series’ south Philly setting. Abbott Elementary is a very charming and funny series that shows there is still life to be found in network sitcoms. Here’s hoping it can go on for many years to come.