They’re young, in love and totally hammered. Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a first-grade school teacher, sits in her car and chugs from a flask before going in to teach her students. Charlie (Aaron Paul), a music critic, gets to sleep in and drink on the job, because concerts and booze are a natural fit. They’re functioning alcoholics, they enable each other, and they get along great when they’re plastered. Who needs sobriety, anyway?
Smashed, a refreshingly concise and focused study of a woman under the influence, follows what happens when Kate has a moment of self-realization — she wakes up one morning lying in the street, having smoked crack with a stranger after a drinking binge — and decides she needs to correct her life. Director James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote the script with Susan Burke (inspired in part by her own experiences), opts for realism and modesty instead of sensation. There are no harrowing tragedies or depressing plot twists, the way most films about alcoholism go about forcing their protagonist to get sober.
Instead, Smashed uses unexpected humor (Nick Offerman plays Kate’s socially awkward co-worker, who makes what is probably the crudest, most outrageous pass in cinematic history at her) and strong supporting performances (Octavia Spencer plays Kate’s AA sponsor) to depict the courage and determination of an addict who uses sheer willpower to get clean.
The film’s real focus, though, is the relationship between Kate and Charlie, which inevitably changes when she stops drinking. He’s supportive of her decision but is not quite ready to go dry yet, which wrecks the dynamic of their marriage. Winstead is terrific as a young woman scared into sobriety, only to discover going straight and telling people the truth is much harder than lying and hiding her addiction. The actress shares a tender connection with Paul, who plays Charlie as a loving husband who hasn’t hit his emotional bottom yet and doesn’t understand why his wife is slipping away from him. The final scene in Smashed is beautiful yet heart-rending, because you’ve grown to care about these characters so much, but you also realize that sometimes love may not conquer all.
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Mary Kay Place.
Director: James Ponsoldt.
Screenwriters: James Ponsoldt, Susan Burke.
Producers: Jennifer Cochis, Jonathan Schwartz, Andrea Sperling.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 85 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Nov. 9 at area theaters.