Based on title alone, Smile might appear to be a goofy comedy or a cloyingly sweet tale of love, but the film expertly explores the complexities that come when life is at a crossroads. That’s where we find Lucas Wilson, who runs into his high school sweetheart at his portrait studio. He learns she’s engaged to an insurance agent, and her revelation serves as a catalyst for Lucas to look back at his past while navigating his future.
The film explores the effects our pasts can have on us. Old family secrets, broken relationships, and physical traumas are parts of various character experiences, but each person deals differently with the pains of their past. Some embrace their new lives and find themselves surrounded by humor and filled with courage and persistence; others let the pain fester, creating broken friendships and the inability to mature.
Throughout the film, the layers of the main characters are shown in carefully plotted way, each connecting to the personalities we currently find them with, save for, perhaps, Johnny, whose usually playful, funny demeanor takes a break near the film’s end in an effort to help his friend and co-worker Lucas fight through his current inner obstacles. In the end, Lucas must decide if he wants to continue his closed off behavior, or if he’s finally ready to open up, embrace new possibilities, and finally smile.
Raymond Roberson’s and Preeti Jhawar’s performances catapult each scene. Both actors bring strikingly realistic touches to the film. Their troubles, their relationship, their quirks all feel authentic, as though we are at times watching footage of a real couple. Dan Steadman directs a tale that audiences should find relatable. He creates a slice-of-life narrative with aplomb, avoiding caricatures or bland characters living out pointless stories.
Throughout the movie, stunning footage of the cold, snowy winter of Holland, Michigan captures the clean slate that Lucas is offered. Just as his former love has moved on, he finds himself in the position to go forward and start anew. Thoughts of spring and tulips associated with the province of Holland bring forth the ideas of the joy that can come from the blanket of winter. This metaphor for Lucas’s situation never chokes the audience with subtext; rather, Steadman’ nuanced directing allows the films deeper roots to slowly bloom throughout Lucas’s trajectory, until Lucas himself finally reveals the void in his life at his art show.
Smile hits all the right notes of a drama rooted in realism. It acknowledges that life can be messy, sometimes even staged, but that taking a minute to examine our inner desires and those voids that we cannot help but feel, helps us to no longer fear the what ifs of the future. If you’re looking for an alternative to typical box office fodder filled with explosions and one-liners, then Smile is the exact movie you want.