Directed by: Paul Sprangers
Distributed by: TBA
Written by Anna Harrison
It’s hard to write about films like Paul Sprangers’ “Smile or Hug”—not because it’s so bad it leaves you speechless, but neither because it’s so good there is nothing to comment on; rather, it’s because there is not a single remarkable thing about this movie. There are plenty of worse movies, but there’s something patently annoying about watching something so dull and then having to formulate enough of an opinion on it to fill at least a few paragraphs.
The scenario is a familiar one: Trish (Chelsea Javier, co-writer and married to Spranger) is an art teacher approaching 30 who feels as if life has passed her by, a feeling only intensified when her boyfriend, Adrien (Ryan Alexander Holmes), dumps her via original song. To pile on top of this, supply shortages due to Covid have rendered it nigh-impossible to get paint for Trish’s elementary school class, forcing her to go to extreme lengths to get the necessities for her students. This brings her across the path of Dr. Garcia (Danny Trejo), an eccentric who loans Trish some tapes for her to listen to. Why does she take them? What does he say to convince her? I cannot remember because I was not paying attention. But who cares. He gives her some self-help tapes full of Instagram platitudes and she begins to feel better.
Despite the tapes themselves being forgettable, there are a handful of creative visuals that keep these sequences aloft: it seems that life advice from Danny Trejo provokes such a strong response that his words transport Trish to the places they describe. There is also a scene where Trish gets high on some edibles and crawls around her apartment, talking to her bunnies, and if the rest of the film displayed the inventiveness it shows during Danny Trejo’s monologues and Trish’s edible experience, “Smile or Hug” would be a lot better. In these moments, you can appreciate the creativity of Sprangers and his cinematography (Sprangers directed, edited, did the cinematography for, co-wrote, and co-produced the movie), but it’s only so long before we get dragged back into Trish’s dull life. (Her friends, by the way, are horrible—despite not having a personality, they manage to get on my nerves. Though, to be fair, so does Trish.)
The film resolves exactly how you think it will. “Smile or Hug” isn’t reinventing the wheel: it’s a story of self-doubt we’ve seen before, only with some neat visual tricks sprinkled in, and while that can be fine, this film is not clever enough to pull the standard plot off without being a bit too twee. It’s filled with the best intentions, so I can’t begrudge Sprangers too much, but I don’t even know what the title is referencing (it was probably mentioned but I just forgot because I kept scrolling on my phone instead of paying attention). I do know that I was neither smiling nor hugging anyone while watching it—“Maintain a Neutral and Uninterested Expression,” more like. Ha ha.
“Smile or Hug” Trailer
“Smile or Hug” was screened as part of the 2022 edition of the Bentonville Film Festival.
You can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and her website.