The 2005 cause film Smile puts a self-centered and materialistic California high school girl in the path of a lesson about true hardship and physical beauty. The cause du jour is medical missions (such as the real-life Operation Smile) that perform reconstructive face (and other plastic) surgery in third-world cultures that are extraordinarily harsh on children who suffer from such birth defects as cleft palate.
But Smile is much more than a simple cause tear-jerker.
In an industrialized area of China, a girl infant is born deformed—and abandoned in a field. A young married worker finds the child, and against his wife's wishes, adopts it. The girl grows up completely sequestered, hiding behind a veil even in her own home. Eventually, Daniel's wife forces him to choose Lin, the girl, or her and their natural-born (and very jealous) son. Daniel chooses Lin and loses his family.
In Malibu, meanwhile, Katie grows up as the spoiled only daughter of a squabbling twosome, lawyer Steven and his too-idle wife Bridgette. Katie naturally acquires the chronic American "whatever" attitude. When she's challenged by a teacher to participate in an overseas relief effort and runs across the story of Mr. Matthews' abortive encounter with Lin and Daniel the previous year, she's hooked.
By that time, most likely you will be, too.
Great Characters and Some New Finds
One of the fun things about Smile is seeing Sean Astin, Beau Bridges, and Linda Hamilton turn up in what might be considered "throw away" roles in other films—and shine here. Katie's parents are annoying, and Mr. Matthews is Pollyanna in a sport coat; but Bridges, Hamilton, and Astin (respectively) play these characters with a genuineness and humor that's both uplifting and engaging.
Better, Mika Boorem and Luoyong Wang are real finds as Katie and Daniel. Both have solid backgrounds in TV (and you might remember Boorem from the trailers for Blue Crush, which virtually no one actually saw), but in this feature they solidly anchor the storytelling.
The way in which one-shot writer/director Jeffrey Kramer bounces back and forth between the China and Malibu sequences is a little formulaic, and I never quite bought Lin's character as a real girl; but overall, Kramer gets the best out of even the tiniest of supporting roles and his locations (even in Malibu) are a breath of fresh air. If you've got teenagers, I even think they'll be drawn in by the small bunch of American and Asian slackers and over-achievers that Kramer presents. There's no question that this story carries a distinctly lived-in feel.
What Good Is it to Have the World?
Where's the spirituality? Well, there's no Buddhist or Christian musings backing Daniel and Lin's perseverance or the American relief efforts here. So don't expect any proselytizing. No, the spirituality is more ethical and moral than anything: what good is it to have the world when your soul tells you that others are suffering? Katie learns to put herself on the line by advocating on the behalf of those less fortunate.
Smile is rated PG-13 for some mature content involving teen sexuality. Oh, please. Katie talks with her mom about wanting to have sex with her boyfriend and gets birth control... but then she learns about other priorities. This is pretty positive stuff, not something to warn people about.
Courtesy of the distributor, Greg screened Smile.
Greg Wright is Managing Editor of both Past the Popcorn and Hollywood Jesus. An ordained pastor, Greg is the author of Tolkien In Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (2003) and Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004). A widely-known lecturer on Tolkien, Lewis, film, and fantasy, Greg resides in the Seattle area with his precious wife Jenn and their two cats, Grynne and Bearrett.