The artistic and cheerful Julie (Stacie Barra) spends her days doing happy things. Writing poetry, sketching, dancing in grass fields, laughing at her own thoughts, working as a florist; Julie is out of touch with the negativity and the cynicism that surrounds her.
Still, something’s not quite right with Julie. While her cheerful demeanor doesn’t seem altered, she randomly sees a not-always-smiling version of herself; the bad girl version of Julie’s goodie-goodie persona. At first it’s just a quirk of her life, but when increased appearances by Other Julie start to complicate Julie’s new relationship with struggling musician Steven (A. Monnie Aleahmad), Julie starts to break down, and her blissful innocence begins to fade.
Eric Mattson’s feature film, Julie’s Smile, dabbles in being a study in psychological horror and trauma, but really is about one person finally accepting who they are. The issues stem from the attempt in hiding the universal life journey in psychological horror tropes, and not giving enough depth to the characters.
Take Julie, for example. She’s cheerful and artistic, except when she’s being tortured by visions or hallucinations. She’s the focus of the narrative, but you can’t help but still feel removed from her character. Even when we know why she was seeing what she was seeing, it doesn’t make much of an impact. There’s a numbness attached to the bloat of the first half of the film, where it spends much of its time establishing that Julie is a cheerful person, but doesn’t accomplish much else.
Then there’s Steven, who has even less of a character. He and Julie are in a relationship, and he’s understanding when things get a little nutty, but he’s little more than a plot device. His relationship with Julie is given an importance in the film that it doesn’t narratively earn; it’s hard to care whether he and Julie can make the relationship work.
Beyond that, the film rests too much on the diminishing merits of the random, creepy appearance of Other Julie. At first, there’s a mystery to everything. As it goes on, though, it becomes an exercise in “rush at the camera” scares and ambiguous purpose, as Other Julie does little except show up, which is enough to annoy Julie. I’m not saying just the appearance of an Other Me wouldn’t cause me to flip out, it probably would, but if I was as used to it as Julie seems to be, and nothing much came of it, I probably would be less inclined to freak out. Of course, some of the other visions would still cause me to feel uneasy (visions shouldn’t punch you).
In the end, I followed the main ideas at the core of Julie’s Smile, but I don’t know that the film did them justice in its portrayal. If anything, it felt like a lot of misdirects, confusion and expanded moments when it could’ve been creepier and more powerful in a more streamlined fashion (if being creepy was truly one of its goals). On the tech side, there’s also a crispness to the image that undercuts the more haunting moments, and the sound isn’t always the cleanest. Which happens in independent film, and are not as big a determining factor in the success or failure of the film in my eyes; the fact that I never truly connected with any of the characters, or cared about what Julie was going through, is where my final estimation of the film exists.
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