Review: Smile more
The story follows Noah, a young black boxer on the receiving end of racist abuse from his fellow students. Feeling like nobody is in his corner, Noah eventually makes a stand.
As something of an experiment, Smile More is the product of a youth-led exercise commissioned by the charity Integrate UK. Based on a story developed by young people from schools around Bristol, this film drops us headlong into the isolation of experiencing racism as a student. Embattled protagonist Noah (first time actor Modou Bouye) finds himself cornered by racist bullies in almost every area of his school life. Seeking help from teachers and authority figures charged with his protection, he finds himself criticised for coming off as aggressive and having it suggested that he should “smile more”.
There is an authenticity required in order to do justice to such a sensitive topic, that this story thankfully accomplishes. This is due in no small part to the premise, experiences and resulting emotions experienced in the film coming from the real-world experiences of the school children engaged by Integrate UK, many of whom, including the protagonist, appear in the film.
The film does a fantastic job of maintaining a low frequency hum of tension that almost imperceptibly rises over the course of the film as Noah tries over and over again to rise above the onslaught of abuse thrown his way. Modou Bouye shines in his debut role, mastering the ability to deliver a performance that presents as muted but reads as restrained, hitting exactly the right beats as his inner rage builds to an explosive conclusion.
An invaluable asset to the film is veteran TV actor Louis Emerick, who attempts to support Noah through his difficulties while confronting uncomfortable truths about his approach to racism. An actor of Emerick’s calibre goes a long way to bringing weight and complexity to the character dynamics of the story, while providing an excellent foil for Bouye to spar with.
Screenwriter Sinitta Monero distils all of these collected and disparate experiences into a tightly written script, applying focus and precision to the story without sacrificing the gravity and trauma of the experiences she depicts. Holbrook once again captures the almost silent violence that comes to define the existence of a child suffering bullying, returning at times to what works so well about his 2015 drama A Girl and Her Gun. In this case, however, Holbrook’s growth as a filmmaker is on full display as he shepherds his team to incredible work across editing, sound design and some powerful cinematography.
In so many ways, Smile More accomplishes the task of delivering multi-layered social commentary and multi-faceted character conflicts, while weaving these elements into a concise, narratively economic and a visually and emotionally powerful experience. This is a fine example of what stories can be told when we listen to the people most affected by them. Dealing with racism as an adult is challenging enough, but through the openness and courage of so many young people, we are subjected to the nightmare of dealing with racism as a child in today’s schooling system. Holbrook once again proves himself a reliable steward of the experiences of young people and delivers another stunning short film as a result.
Studio: Integrate UK | Year: 2022 | Genre: Drama | Duration: 9 Mins | Suitability: Mature
Modou Bouye, Louis Emerick, Tom Pegler
Director: Paul Holbrook | Producer: Alison Hargreaves | Writers: Sinitta Monero
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