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 program.
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 end.
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 actors.
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 the film.
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 it.