There's something about "based
on a true story" that always sets off warning bells for me.
Films with that label often seem to be burdened with something that
keeps them from being good as films. Sure, there are many examples of
great films that really are based on a true story (Amadeus
comes to mind), but those films almost never call attention to the
fact... nor do they need to, because the film itself stands on its
own two feet. So in a way, the "based on a true story"
label seems almost like an apology, a way of saying "Hey, we
know it's not quite up to par as a film... but cut us some slack -
it's based on real events!" I could be reading too much into
that, of course, but Smile seems to fit the pattern to a T.
It's a film with good intentions, but it tries too hard. In being so
earnest in conveying a message of hope, inspiration, and all sorts of
good things like that, Smile forgets to tell a good story.
The premise of Smile is based
on the real-life medical charity known as "Operation Smile,"
which brings doctors to third-world countries to perform free
reconstructive surgery on children with cleft lips and palates, who
would otherwise not be able to afford the surgery. The benefit is
partly social, with the children no longer being shunned or taunted
by others, and partly physical, as the defects often interfere with
speech or eating. All this is information that's presented in the
slightly cheesy but still informational eight-minute featurette in
the special features section of the DVD. In the film itself,
Operation Smile is renamed "Doctor's Gift," and instead of
a straightforward exposition of what the program is and does, we get
the tale of two girls on opposite sides of the globe who end up
meeting (and changing each others' lives, of course) through the
Right from the start, Smile
feels forced and awkward. We have the two protagonists: Katie, a
beautiful California girl whose generous heart impels her to help out
Doctor's Gift, even though she herself has been born into a life of
privilege; and Lin, a Chinese girl who suffers from facial
deformities so that she hides her face behind a veil. Given the
relentlessly upbeat packaging of the Smile DVD, viewers will
be in little doubt as to whether everything ends up going well in the
I could talk about the fact that
Smile, in attempting to tell a story of a Cinderella becoming
a princess, highlights some disturbing tendencies in our culture...
like the fact that we see beautiful Katie's face constantly, but poor
Lin is discreetly veiled until a climactic moment. Is this really
about letting inner beauty shine through, and helping someone feel
good about herself, or is it about our obsession with physical
perfection? Is the message "We can help others live a normal
life" or "Beauty is everything, and cosmetic surgery is the
answer"? In the short documentary piece, it's very clear that
the "Smile" operations result in a huge quality-of-life
improvement for the children, but in the film, the other "Doctors'
Gift" patients have extremely minor defects (sparing the tender
sensibilities of the audience, perhaps?), so it seems to be
privileging surface beauty, not practical health benefits.
But even if you don't find this
aspect of the film somewhat unsettling, you'll probably get tired of
Mika Boorem's relentlessly one-note performance as Katie. She has two
modes: normal "beautiful cheerful teenager" mode, and
"about to burst into tears with emotion" mode. Considering
that the latter is indicated primarily by a trembling lower lip (and
does it ever tremble!), there's not a whole lot of range in her
acting. Then again, the script doesn't do much to help any of the
Smile is presented in an
anamorphic widescreen transfer, at its original 1.85:1 widescreen
aspect ratio. The colors are good, but the image tends to be rather
grainy, with some edge enhancement present as well.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does a nice
job of presenting the dialogue and music cleanly and clearly.
The most interesting part of the
whole Smile DVD is the eight-minute piece "Operation
Smile: One Person's Story," which gives the real background on
the medical charity whose work inspired the film. It's a bit sappy,
but interesting nonetheless. There's also a director's commentary for
If the idea behind Smile is
to raise awareness for the charity Operation Smile, then I really
think a thoughtful documentary would have been the way to do it...
not this sappy, badly scripted, badly acted "based on a true
story" film. It's not abjectly terrible, but given its
predictability and slow pacing, I can imagine that nearly everyone
will have better things to do than watch the film. Go ahead and skip