It's never easy to create a fictional narrative that fits the specific purpose of promoting a good cause, and for all the usual good intentions, writer-director Jeffrey Kramer with "Smile" has made a plodding, drawn-out, overly long and contrived film in behalf of Operation Smile, which since 1982 has provided free reconstructive surgery for more than 80,000 children and young adults in developing countries. Although Mika Boorem reveals considerable range and conviction in the film's central role, based on Kramer's own teenage daughter and her experiences, "Smile" is like a dose of cod liver oil: It may be good for you, but it's no fun.
Two very different birthdays for 15-year-old girls are being celebrated thousands of miles apart. In Malibu, Boorem's Katie is enjoying a gala at the expensive beachside home of her parents (Beau Bridges, Linda Hamilton), but in a small city several hours' journey from Shanghai, the birthday party for Lin (Yi Ding), a child with a cleft lip, becomes the occasion for the breakup of her family.
For the next hour, Kramer cuts back and forth between the unfolding stories of Katie and Lin. Katie responds to her teacher's discussions of the Doctor's Gift program — based on Operation Smile — and she becomes determined to track down Lin. (That Lin's father [Luoyong Wang] is so intent that Lin speak perfect English proves a great convenience.)
Kramer might have made a much better movie if he had avoided the protracted crosscutting and focused on Katie's learning to look beyond herself, thereby bringing her and Lin together much earlier since the plot telegraphs itself anyway.
Hamilton's role is thankless, and Bridges fares much better as Katie's low-key father, but Cheri Oteri is a major irritant as the woman in charge of the American high school volunteers in Shanghai. Oteri, who does not seem to realize she is not in a "Saturday Night Live" skit, mugs shamelessly in a determined effort to call attention to herself at the expense of the film and everyone else in it.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some mature content involving teen sexuality
Times guidelines: Some forthright discussion of teen sex involving birth control pills
A Dark Forest LLC presentation of a Konwiser Bros./JSK production. Writer-director Jeffrey Kramer. Producer Kip Konwiser. Executive producer Martin O'Neal. Cinematographer Edward Pei. Music Neil Giraldo. Costumes Kathryn Morrison. Special make-up Stan Winston Studios. Production designer Mayling Cheng. Art directors Bob Quinn, Weide Sun. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.
In general release.