Production Company: Dark Forest
Director: Jeffrey Kramer
Principals: Sean Astin, Beau Bridges, Luoyong Wang, Mika Boorem, Linda Hamilton
Rating: PG-13 (sexuality and some language)
By Gregg Tubbs
(UMCom) -- Based on the true experiences of writer/director Jeffrey Kramer and his own daughter, Smile, chronicles the charitable work of the group Operation Smile, through the eyes of two very different teenaged girls. Katie is a privileged, self absorbed high school student from America. Lin lives the life of a near-recluse with her working class father in urban China. Their two lives converge, and forever change as "Doctor’s Gift" (a fictionalized version of Operation Smile) attempts to give Lin something she has literally never had—a smile of her own.
Operation Smile is a real organization that helps provide funding and support that enables doctors, nurses and other volunteers to travel to third-world countries to provide reconstructive facial surgery to children with severe facial deformities. When his own daughter went on just such a mission of mercy, Kramer was inspired to write and direct this coming of age drama about the power of the human heart and how helping others can transform lives—both those who receive the help, and those who give it.
|Daniel (Luoyong Wang, left) and a factory co-worker (Conan Lee) discover an abandoned baby girl who is facially deformed. Photo © Copyright Dark Forest |
Katie (Mika Boorem) lives in the comfortable cocoon of beautiful Malibu, California. She is the picture of outward beauty and privilege, from her stylish clothes to her handsome boy friend. But inside she is callow and self-centered. When her student government club is encouraged by their teacher Mr. Matthews (Sean Astin) to adopt a charity to support, Katie can’t believe what she sees. The pamphlets Mr. Matthews shows them from Doctor’s Gift, show children with severe cleft lips, cleft palates and other deformities. "Are these pictures for real?" she asks. "Living like we do in the cradle of Malibu, we could all use a little reality in our lives," replies Mr. Matthews. Indeed, for a girl whose worst nightmare might be crooked teeth, the faces of these children are a harsh reality check.
Smile also introduces us to Lin (Yi Ding), a Chinese girl, the same age as Katie, but whose life story has been marked by tragedy. Abandoned at a construction site, as a baby, Lin has been raised by the compassionate worker named Daniel (Luoyong Wang) who found her. Although we don’t see her face during the scene where she’s rescued, the reactions of the two workers who find her tell us all we need to know. One is horrified by her facial deformity, while the other, Daniel, gently cradles her in his arms. This scene captures all the challenges Lin will face as she grows up. Some will accept her, while others will never get past her outward appearance, and see the beautiful soul inside.
|Daniel (Luoyong Wang) brings his daughter Lin (Yi Ding) on the bus in China as they head toward an appointment with a medical clinic. Photo © Copyright Dark Forest |
Luckily, Lin has the love of her adoptive father Daniel to shelter her and nurture her. But his devotion comes at the price of losing his own wife and son, who can’t understand his compassion for the orphaned girl, and accuse him of choosing her over them. Of course, that was not the case, but Daniel seems to understand that Lin needs him for her very survival. How could he see her abandoned again, and who would ever take her in?
Eventually, Doctor’s Gift will bring these two girls together. Katie is so moved by their work that she joins them on a mission to China. Lin, having tragically missed her first chance at facial surgery a year earlier, has to be persuaded to leave the privacy of her home and brave the insensitive crowds of Shanghai where Doctor’s Gift has set up their clinic. While the outward change to Lin’s face will improve her life, the biggest change comes to Katie, who learns that "there’s more to life than hassles with parents and boyfriends." In a sense, this is the story of a girl who had earthly riches and outward beauty, but was "spiritually poor." In helping Lin and others, she confirms those familiar words, "It is more blessed to give than it is to receive."
|Katie (Mika Boorem, left) visits Lin (Yi Ding) in a Chinese medical clinic, following Lin’s reconstructive facial surgery. Photo © Copyright Dark Forest |
Smile is worth seeing, not because it is the best written, best directed, or best acted of films, which it is not. In fact, a side plot about teenage sexuality feels like filler, and is morally questionable. But it is worth seeing because of the quality of its core messages: that we need to appreciate the blessings in our lives, and try to help those who are not as blessed; that when one person helps another, both are blessed; that the important thing in life is not "things;" and that true beauty is on the inside. All of these are reason enough to smile on Smile.
Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.