Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul
What seems like fun - or, at the very least, like a good story - at one point in your life can take on darker tinges later on, particularly when that "fun thing" becomes an every day occurrence that threatens your livelihood and your life itself. James Ponsoldt's Smashed is an addiction drama wonderfully free of pathos, one which defines addiction according to its characters, rather than defining its characters according to their addiction, and recognizes that rock bottom is the beginning, not the end. Anchored by a brilliant performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed is a small but very affecting drama.
Smashed opens with what is likely a typical day for its protagonist, Kate (Winstead), waking up hung over with her similarly hung over husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), and then having to drag herself through the rest of her day. In her case, the day ahead means going to the elementary school where she teaches and then, having to think quickly on her feet after vomiting in front of her class, lying and saying that she's pregnant. The school's principal (Megan Mullally) is thrilled with the news and begins living vicariously through Kate, but the assistant principal, Dave (Nick Offerman) knows better, making it known to Kate that he saw her drinking in the parking lot before she came in, and that if she needs to talk about it, he'll lend an ear. Kate insists that she doesn't have a problem, but later she and Charlie go out and Kate gets so drunk that she's talked into smoking crack with a stranger. The day after that she drunkenly makes her way to a liquor store, pees on the floor, steals a bottle of wine and then passes out outside. Realizing that things have gotten out of hand, she decides to take Dave up on his offer and goes to a 12 step meeting with him, where she finds a sponsor (Octavia Spencer) and decides to get sober.
Kate's decision to stop drinking causes a slow rift in her relationship with Charlie, who wants to do no such thing. Although the consequences of his drinking seem less severe (mostly because unlike Kate he has no job to lose), he hits the bottle just as hard as Kate used to and not only does he miss the fun they used to have together, he's also resentful of the relationships she's developed with her 12 step friends and paranoid that he's the subject of discussions between her and her sponsor. He wants things to go back to the way they used to be, but when Kate falls hard off the wagon and he's forced to see her as she is when she's drunk, but without the benefit of being drunk himself, he's scared of it. For her part, Kate has a drunken moment of clarity in which she realizes that it may not be possible for her to both be sober and stay married to Charlie.
Smashed is a strong character driven drama that progresses in a way that feels natural to where the characters are at in any given moment. Kate and Charlie love each other and at one point they were probably perfect for each other, but if Kate wants to pull herself out of her downward spiral, she needs to break away from him and the lifestyle he insists on maintaining despite her attempts at sobriety. That her marriage may be a casualty of her sobriety is a difficult realization for her to come to, one which is steadily built up, and which occurs less as an epiphany than as an explosion. She can't do it anymore; she has to leave. Not because Charlie is a bad guy, but because he's a bad guy for her at that point in time. Smashed's greatest asset is the sense of honesty and authenticity which is rooted in the strong, careful way that it develops its characters and the relationship at the center of the story. Everything feels earned, rather than manipulated for the sake of the plot.
That the narrative is so successful owes a lot to the writing, but it also owes a great deal to the actors. Winstead's performance is amazing, finding warmth in the character even when she's at her lowest depths, and showing an admirable lack of vanity as Kate is put through the paces of her addiction. Kate ends up in a lot of embarrassing positions throughout the film, but Winstead doesn't shy away from the less savory aspects of the character's experiences and takes her right to the edge. She's supported by a strong supporting cast, particularly Offerman as the colleague and friend trying to help Kate while also dealing (sometimes badly) with his own issues. With all these elements in place Smashed manages to be more than just another addiction drama.