Almost by his first mention, Doc Garcia can be attributed to the change of heart directors are pushing Danny Trejo through. Once the muscle-bound madhouse who provided strong turns as villainous anti-heroes, he now pursues the obvious and frequently feeble roles which go the tonal opposite. Typecasting is never fun for anyone involved but to pivot the other way entirely is now a predictable manoeuvre. Paul Sprangers marks his directorial debut and the most impressive thing about it is its unwavering drive toward smiling or hugging. One or the other, the title warns. Smile or hug. Neither, please. Not in the blistering heats blasting British towns right now. It just is not needed. Nor is Smile or Hug, a short and cheap-feeling feature.
Of course Smile or Hug opens on a Zoom call, all these features which were filmed in lockdown are delayed beyond any sense of reflection. Online school provided absolutely nothing but wastes of time and cancelled exams, and so too does Sprangers’ upbeat chasing of a dead indie scene, lost to the floury nothingness of Table 17. He has taken his direction to a vlogger equivalent, the overhead shots and establishing moments which bring together the hapless teacher with the annoying Spotify artist. What a pairing, of course the tracks he presents are pop genericism, the entire film is made up of marketing tools and flashy colours. Still, few people are broken up with by their partner dropping an album.
Artists criticise artists and much of it comes from Adrien (Ryan Alexander Holmes) pursuing a life which departs from the ordinary. But ordinary now is his uniqueness, the social media-obsessed wannabes and the self-centred fascination. These are not new ideas but Smile or Hug presents them and the post-break-up spiral as such. Dipping crisps into ice cream and wailing away in a kimono, sounds more like the concept for a B-Side Sparks track than anything else. Yet there it is. Sometimes it is hard to pursue proper art when the expectation is to have so much of it out there all at once. Even then, what we perceive as creatively viable may not, in fact, be the big breakthrough we, or anyone, aspire to. Smile or Hug is unable to represent a unique voice or charm, instead, it folds in on itself as a generic, soft pop at the world of self-believing up-and-comers.
Whatever charm there is in such a mentality is lost forever as Sprangers brings about wildly bland expressions of “life is weird,” a verbatim quote from lead Chelsea Javier. She is a fine lead, competent and struggling under the weight of poor scriptwriting choices. Cast members are not to blame for being unable to pump life into the uneventful details of this feature. Not even Trejo, the ominous mountain-dwelling painter, can help with his Mr. Miyagi supporting role. Even then it is hard to hear what he says when the soundtrack booms and drowns out whatever nonsensical broadness he is tasked with peddling. That, and because heatwaves are frequent in the hell pit of the UK, the fan is cranked up to maximum and it sounds like a jet engine. Pair that with a ringing ear, and it does become difficult to sift through the dreck of Smile or Hug.