An American girl embarks on a medical mission to China in Jeff Kramer’s message-movie “Smile.” Well-meaning but dramatically lopsided tearjerker bogs down in generic teen angst and domestic squabbling. Despite a promising bicultural cast and winningly offbeat cameos by Sean Astin and Cheri Oteri, pic fails to convince and is unlikely to find much of a following beyond the philanthropic crowd it’s clearly targeting.
Indeed, “Smile” functions more or less as a feature-length promo for Operation Smile, a charity that helps correct facial deformities in children worldwide (and which will receive a portion of the pic’s proceeds). While there is surely an honest, affecting movie to be made about international outreach, it would take a subtler emotional register than writer-director Kramer, who based the story on his daughter’s real-life experience with the org, delivers.
Two girls share a birthday but little else: While Katie is born into a life of Southern California luxury and privilege, the disfigured Lin is abandoned at birth in a rural Chinese village and is adopted by Daniel (Luoyong Wang). His wife (Jia Song), however, feels Daniel gives preferential treatment to the unattractive foundling and moves out with their son, leaving Daniel to raise Lin by himself.
Despite early attempts at a parallel structure, script quickly puts the China arc on hold and flashes forward to focus on Katie (“Blue Crush’s” Mika Boorem), now a high schooler, and the dilemma she faces when her teacher (a goofily self-possessed Astin) announces an upcoming China mission through a program called Doctor’s Gift.
Intrigued, Katie nevertheless feels she’s dealing with enough problems: She’s debating whether or not to sleep with her aggressive boyfriend, Chris (Erik von Detten); engaging in a mild flirtation with more sensitive Ted (Jonathon Trent); and having screaming matches with her parents (Linda Hamilton and Beau Bridges).
But, pic’s main point seems to be how trivial the problems of the white upper-middle class are compared with those of the rest of the world, and this seems to be the logic behind Katie’s sudden decision to leave for China — though it’s hard to imagine the trip isn’t also a good excuse to get away from her shrill mother.
Script shows more finesse in delineating the tensions between Lin and her father, who encourages her to undergo an operation through Doctor’s Gift, despite a failed previous attempt.
Wang, easily the least self-conscious thesp on camera, brings warmth and quiet dignity to the long-suffering Daniel. Lin, by contrast, is treated as little more than Katie’s project, less a person than a vehicle for the improvement and edification of guilt-ridden Westerners. Characterization of Lin would have benefited if she had been allowed to be a more active agent in her own narrative, or if actress Yi Ding had not been forced to hide her scar — and her emotions — behind a veil.
Still, the scene when Lin and Katie finally come face-to-face is undeniably effective, as is the final stretch, which focuses on the moving friendship that develops between the two girls. In a bizarre casting choice that pays off, Oteri puts a benign spin on her giddy “Saturday Night Live” persona as an obnoxious but seasoned volunteer who helps Katie ease in to her new surroundings.
One of the first Western productions in years to lense in China with a government license, pic rises nicely to the visual challenge, with Edward Pei’s cinematography shifting between the two environments with considerable ease. Musical arrangements, however — noisy pop for California, Asian-sounding string and wind instruments for China — are divisive.