Kate (Winstead) and Charlie (Paul) are a couple dedicated to wringing out every last drop of fun life has to offer. But when boozy teacher Kate starts waking up in strange places and puking up in front of her elementary school class, she realises she needs to make a change...
"Love is easy," Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate says at one point during Smashed. “It’s the rest of the shit that’s hard.” It’s also disturbingly easy for a film about people struggling with the delights and despair of addiction to slip into After-School Special/Movie Of The Week preach, teach and heal territory. Thankfully, this new drama, which impressed Sundance audiences, manages to avoid the pitfalls by combining a light, frank, comic touch with real emotion and weighty, human performances by all those involved.
It’s Winstead who deserves the lion’s share of the credit here, crafting Kate as a charming, cheery, but ultimately troubled young woman. She’s built a seemingly perfect life, but comes to realise that the basement is flooded with alcohol. And when she makes the decision to take the 12 Steps (“Assholes Anonymous” as her mother, played by Mary Kay Place, snipes) journey, she finds out that it might be even tougher than dealing with hangovers. Especially when partner Charlie (Aaron Paul) decides he really doesn’t want to climb out of the bottle beside her.
But respect is also due to Paul, who makes Charlie sympathetic even as he’s selfish; Octavia Spencer, bringing wisdom and wariness to the role of fellow AA participant Jenny; and Nick Offerman, who trades the gruffness of TV’s Ron Swanson for the painfully awkward Vice Principal Dave Davies. It’s Dave who helps Kate take her first, faltering steps towards sobriety, but also stuffs his foot firmly in his mouth with his atrocious attempts at flirting.
Truth plays a big part here, with director James Ponsoldt and co-writer Susan Burke choosing to keep things on an even keel rather than let it become overdramatised. It’s effective, because as Kate and Charlie’s relationship corrodes, it’s like two people in love breaking emotional bottles and stabbing each other with the shards as they argue.
The sharp ends in Smashed are here for all to see, and Ponsoldt never shies away from their spiky, thought-provoking effect. Yet he also finds grace and warmth in the story.