Human emotions are complex things, and we have a wide range of facial expressions to show them. A smile can show happiness. The Un-Smile is when a smile is wrong, somehow. The Stepford Smiler smiles because they force themselves to hide their genuine feelings. But the Wistful Smile is when someone is genuinely happy and sad at the same time. It may be reminiscing about the past, or being happy for someone else's victory, or maybe a situation has many meanings for them.
There are some circumstances where these are almost expected, a father giving away his daughter at her wedding, realizing that She's All Grown Up, or parents sending their child off to college, for much the same reason. A character who makes a Heroic Sacrifice and then Go Out with a Smile may have one of these, though they're just as likely to have a genuinely happy smile, as well. The next logical step up is the Tearful Smile.
Compare and contrast with The Un-Smile and Technically a Smile; a Wistful Smile is about showing that a character is genuinely happy and sad at the same time, as opposed to a failed attempt at smiling. Compare with Broken Smile, which can have similar connotations about mixed emotions, though that one usually accompanies a mental breakdown.
Anime and Manga
- The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan. When the original Nagato's personality is reasserted, and Kyon returns her home, Ryoko Asakura has a wistful smile. She's glad for the return of her long time friend, but she's also saddened by the loss of the new Nagato, whom she'd become fond of.
- My-HiME: Natsuki gives a faint smile when Tate races off to find Mai after realizing that Mai loves him, but she's also still reeling from the revelations about her mother's betrayal and Shizuru's madness, and it shows.
- Tate's death as well. He's in very real pain, and, as he observes, dying is scary. But with his death, Mai and Shiho won't be fighting each other any more, and he manages to find comfort in that and smile.
- Ranma ½:
- Kasumi has a sad but serene smile in the OAV episode where she found her late mother's old cook book.
- In another OAV episode, Ryoga smiles sadly as he walks away from Akane while she sleeps. He knows in his heart that if he keeps training her against her opponent, he'll unconsciously sabotage her, because it would break her engagement to Ranma. But he can still smile as he walks away, because "At least this time, I get to be the hero."
- Dungeon Keeper Ami: From Ami in "Construction Work", wistful due to thinking of teaching her friend a new cool spell, but also bringing to mind that she can't do so immediately because she's Trapped in Another World from her friends:
With a wistful smile, she decided that Usagi's instruction would have to take place indoors to take her clumsiness into account.
Film - Animated
- Inside Out: Bing Bong gives a sad smile to Joy when she realizes that he sacrificed himself so she could reach Headquarters and save Riley.
- Puss in Boots: Puss smiles sadly after Humpty sacrifices himself to save the Golden Goose, revealing himself to be a golden egg on the inside.
Puss: I always knew you were good inside.
Film - Live Action
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:
- The last look Frodo gives his companions as he boards the ship to the Undying Lands.
- Elrond smiles sadly as Arwen and Aragorn are reunited. It's more than the typical father-at-daughter's-wedding moment; because Arwen has chosen to stay with Aragorn rather than leaving Middle-earth with the rest of the elves, she and Elrond will never see each other again, even in the afterlife, after Elrond leaves.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kirk, in the end, has a sad smile as he recites a line from A Tale of Two Cities, while reflecting on what Spock was trying to tell him, while still mourning Spock's death.
- In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie gives a "small, sad smile" on his birthday because he didn't win the Golden Ticket, but he still has the chocolate.
- Sherlock Holmes, in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box", is able to break in on Watson's thoughts in part because of Watson's wistful smile.
Holmes: Your hand stole towards your own old wound and a smile quivered on your lips, which showed me that the ridiculous side of this method of settling international questions had forced itself upon your mind.
Live Action Television
- The eponymous character will often have a sad smile when reflecting on his daughter Alexis growing up.
- Beckett will also have a wistful smile whenever she reminisces to Castle about her late mother, whose murder set her on the path to being a cop, and whom she clearly loved and remembers fondly, as there were many happy times shared by them.
- Many of The Doctors from Doctor Who, but the 11th Doctor was especially prone to sad smiles. The episode "Closing Time", when he sees Amy's picture, is a good example. He sees a perfume ad featuring Amy, and is happy that she was able to move on from her time with him, and is doing well for herself, but it's also clear he still misses her. And his final smile before he regenerates.
- Game of Thrones: Catelyn is seen with a small, sad smile as she watches her son Robb kissing his wife Talisa, who had just announced she planned to name their unborn child after Robb's late father if it's a boy. Catelyn is happy for her son and daughter-in-law, though she's clearly thinking about and missing her husband too.
- The opening lyrics of the Guns N' Roses song "Patience"
Shed a tear —'cause I'm missin' youI'm still alright to smileGirl, I think about you every day nowWas a time when I wasn't sureBut you set my mind at easeThere is no doubt you're in my heart now
- In The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, as Midna fades into the Twilight Realm, having destroyed the Mirror of Twilight so no one will ever be able to travel between the Twilight Realm and Hyrule ever again, she smiles sadly at Link and Zelda.
- If the protagonist of Daughter for Dessert breaks off his relationship with Amanda and then announces that hes dating Kathy, Heidi, or Lily, Amanda will later give him one of these in private while blessing the relationship.
- BoJack Horseman lampshades this with a flashback of his and Princess Caroline's on-again off-again relationship when it first started out, as she wakes up before him and smiles at his sleeping, only for him to wake up.
BoJack: If you're going to be wistful, wist quietly. Not everyone is interested in your wist.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Burnt Oak has a sad smile when Big Mac asks if he can come back and talk about his (presumably) late father, Bright Mac. Burnt Oak is remembering the loss of his old friend, but is happy to share those memories with his friend's now adult son.
- Both Rarity and Apple Jack have wistful smiles in "Make New Friends But Keep Discord" when seeing Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom in their Gala dresses for the first time.
- Doctor Doofenshmirtzoften has bittersweet smiles while he reminiscing about his daughter Vanessa's childhood. He often expresses pride in her and her accomplishments, while trying to recapture the simplicity of her childhood.
- The final scene of Samurai Jack sees Jack with a wistful smile. He's spent 50 years fighting Aku, and lost many friends and the woman he loved, but the fight is over, Aku is gone, and he's home again, with a future ahead of him.