It’s extremely hard to tell a variation on the traditional addiction narrative that hasn’t been seen before. From the gritty realism of Leaving Las Vegas and Trainspotting to the swinging for the fences acting of films like When a Man Loves a Woman, it might seem like a film about substance abuse today wouldn’t have just as much to say or add to the discussion without seeming preachy or redundant. It’s great to see that James Ponsoldt’s Smashed manages to avoid all but only the briefest moments of cliché in a well acted and surprisingly humorous look at one woman’s struggle with the bottom.
There’s no more bottom left to hit for Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose excessive and non-stop drinking within the first ten minutes of the film has led to her smoking crack, passing out in an abandoned lot, and then going to her day job as a first grade teacher and puking in front of the students – something she covers for by lying and saying that she’s pregnant. Her husband (Aaron Paul) is her enabler and good time buddy, while one of her colleagues (Nick Offerman) knows from personal experience that she has a severe problem and tries to persuade her to follow him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Unlike many films of this sort where the main character has to be forced kicking and screaming into rehab, Kate makes her own informed decision through an actual moment of clarity early on. Instead of focusing on the depressing nature of addiction ruining the lives of the people around it, Ponsoldt (who previously looked at alcoholism in the little remarked upon Off the Black) focuses on Katie’s search for inner strength and the genuine desire to be a better person.
Winstead, stepping well outside of what she’s best known for, does a splendid job showing just how hard it is to live an honest life and to confront all one’s faults in the harshest light possible. She gets a lot of help from recent Emmy winner Paul as her aloof, loving, and often frustratingly drunk other half. Their scenes together propel most of the narrative, leading to a climax that very dangerously comes close to After School Special territory, but is saved by some truly raw emotional moments between the pair of them that stick in the viewer’s mind long after the film ends and gives the viewer a lot to think about.
The film also boasts great supporting performances from Offerman, as the good natured but wholly inappropriate friend and co-worker, his real life wife Megan Mullally in her best role in years as Katie’s baby crazy boss, and even a low-key but welcome performance from Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer as Kate’s AA sponsor. Together with Ponsoldt’s lack of a sentimental eye, Smashed comes together as an almost unnerving bit of dramatic realism that never wears out its welcome at a scant 85 minutes. It says only what needs to be said about these characters. It’s a welcome change of pace and a remarkable sign of restraint on a filmmaking level. Ponsoldt just allows his characters to be and make their own mistakes, and the movie is a lot better for that.
Cast: Aaron Paul, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Octavia Spencer
Directed by:James Ponsoldt
Top image: A scene from Smashed. Courtesy Mongrel Media.