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Working part-time in retail as a twenty-something college student, laboring through rush-hour periods with long lines of impatient customers, the phones ringing off the hook, and someone angry that their essential product was out of stock, it was sometimes difficult to maintain a cheery disposition for me and my coworkers.

This was seen as normal for my male coworkers but not for me, a point underlined by male customers who would approach me for help, then say: You’d be so much prettier if you smiled.

It’s not that I was angry or sullen. I just wasn’t forcing myself to pretend that I wasn’t experiencing sub-smiling emotions at the time. I found it strange that they expected me to smile on demand, as if smiling shouldn’t be the natural result of a pleasant exchange. I wanted to reply, “If you want me to smile, say something funny.”

Smile is the feature debut of writer and director Parker Finn, based on his 2020 short film Laura Hasn’t Slept. It’s a deliciously creepy fright-fest starring Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick), Kal Penn, and Jessie T. Usher, about a therapist in a psychiatric facility who discovers there may be more going on with some of the patients than her expertise can explain. 

When a young patient claims that people she knows are smiling at her before doing something horrible, Dr. Rose Cotter is understandably skeptical. Then the very incident the patient described occurs when Dr. Cotter gets to witness the patient produce the same unsettling smile before…well, doing something horrible. 

The smiles are unsettling because they’re not Duchenne smiles. Named for the French doctor who studied facial expressions, a Duchenne smile results when someone is genuinely happy and showing authentic joy, which produces wrinkling and narrowing around the eyes. A fake smile mostly involves the mouth. It’s what most of us learn to perfect as children when we’re told to “Say cheese!” for the camera. 

When Dr. Cotter begins experiencing the same disorienting hallucinations her patient had, her therapist, boyfriend, and loved ones all react in ways that represent our culture of toxic positivity. Rooted in the belief that it’s a character flaw to feel anything less than gratitude, happiness, and contentment, toxic positivity is the act of dismissing, minimizing, and denying “negative emotions,” even when feeling them is natural and appropriate to the situation. Someone is promoting a toxic form of positive encouragement when they refuse to accept and validate feelings of disappointment, anger, sorrow, burnout, or anything else that’s not warm and fuzzy.

Toxic positivity is the act of dismissing, minimizing, and denying “negative emotions,” even when feeling them is natural and appropriate to the situation.

Toxic positivity discourages tackling the issues that caused the emotions and potentially prevents emotional maturation, replacing it with insincere, inauthentic emotional expression. It stems from the misguided impression that false assurances will cheer you up and communicates discomfort with handling life’s hardships. Common phrases like “Think happy thoughts!” and “Look on the bright side!” are essentially saying “I don’t know how to help you, so can we pretend you don’t need any help?”

As we watch Dr. Cotter’s descent into madness, the film masterfully takes us on the same ride (causing me to jump more than once right out of my seat) and the special effects were gloriously terrifying. Sosie Bacon’s performance reveals confusion and terror with nuance and sensitivity. This is one of those films I’m glad I saw on the big screen.

There’s a pattern emerging in the mystery as Dr. Cotter investigates what’s happening to her and several other men and women, and she comes to lean on her cop ex-boyfriend who reluctantly helps her unravel the seemingly paranormal occurrences. His character exemplifies the need for someone to be in your corner when the shit hits the fan.

Eventually, Dr. Cotter confronts the traumas of her past, symbolizing the need to acknowledge emotional pain in order to heal. Just as we wouldn’t expect to walk normally again if we ignored a broken ankle, we shouldn’t expect emotional pain to heal if it’s swept under the rug. 

When someone is expected to project an image of perfection and doesn’t feel heard, it can often result in a simmering volatile brew of resentment and anger that might boil over, causing them to lash out at others or punish themselves.

Smile is a reminder that a culture of toxic positivity is slowly killing us.

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Liz LaPoint is a bibliophile, sexuality researcher, writer, atheist, secular humanist, producer of The Naked Advice YouTube channel, model, wife, and mom.