NOTE: I don’t believe it’s possible for me to discuss what I liked most about this film without insinuating what might happen in the end. That said, this is a slight spoiler warning in case you want to go into this movie 100% in the dark.
I need to mention something important right off. I generally have a problem with most films that deal with alcoholics, drug addicts and their recovery. This isn’t a problem because of something pertaining to my life, it has to do with the traditional narrative all these films tend to have.
Films dealing with these kinds of addictions commonly include the foreshadowing of something bad. Someone sneaks a drink or a bad thing happens because someone gets drunk or high. Then there’s the realization there’s a problem and the forced rehab. They rebel, they accept, they better themselves, they fall off the wagon and eventually find a happy ending. The end.
I mention all of this now, because this isn’t the exact trajectory of Smashed, a story centered on an alcoholic, first grade school teacher that decides to get clean while her husband continues to put ’em away. While it doesn’t follow the traditional story flow as laid out above, bits and pieces are in there… and yes, when those scenes came to pass they did bother and bore me. And yet, Smashed does get a lot of things right.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate. We see her drunk with her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), sneaking a swig of beer while in the shower and drinking from a flask before heading into work. For Kate, work means being a first grade teacher and her late night of partying and early morning chaser results in her vomiting on the floor in front of her class.
Bent over, horrified, she turns her head as one of her students asks, “Are you pregnant? My mommy threw up when she was pregnant.” A pause. A response. “Yes.” This is the first sign Kate sees on her way to a realization she has a problem with alcohol. Soon she takes some advice and seeks out help and finds a strong support system in Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), but that support isn’t equaled at home.
Charlie hasn’t quit drinking. Kate comes home and he’s already three sheets to the wind and ready to head out for more partying. Charlie considers her sobriety an unwelcome change as the two begin to drift apart. What follows will test Kate’s resolve, her marriage and her career.
While the film does have a few of those pet peeves I listed above, the script co-written by director James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke does bring more interesting moments of decision making front and center. So often we watch these kinds of movies as characters are forced into rehab and they have to repeat their previous mistakes on an even higher level before they actually “get it.” Here, Kate “gets it” on her own and chooses to better her own life and finds support in doing so.
There’s a message that comes across in this film, saying sometimes the “right” choice isn’t always the choice that’s going to lead to the perfect scenario. In one sense, you have to adjust your expectations on what the word “perfect” even means. For Kate, her decision to get sober makes her happy even if the result of that happiness will force her to make some tough decisions. Decisions lesser films would shy from since they dont’t exactly end in audience friendly results.
In this feature, Winstead delivers her best performance to date. Until now she’s had her go in genre films for the most part, with Smashed signalling her first step into loftier cinematic territory. As Kate she embraces her fear, anxiety and happiness and delivers a pair of speeches in her AA meetings that really bring the film home. The final one especially delivers.
Paul is good, though his role was smaller than I expected as this is primarily Winstead’s film, but in a few scenes between the two there is a definite chemistry. Supporting performances from Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally also add to a well made tapestry.
The main thing I still have a hard time getting over are the narrative roads films like this must always follow. While Smashed does a good job turning down a few darker alleys others would traditionally be too scared to tread, there are a few I just can’t overlook. I say this, realizing fully, there may not actually be an alternative in order to maintain the dramatic flow, but that doesn’t change the fact these plot turns bother me.
Smashed is a good film, with one particularly solid performance, but the kind of film it is tends to turn me off going in and it didn’t do enough to divert my attention from the narrative pitfalls it’s forced to fall into, though I commend it on its ultimate finale.
This review first appeared on this site on September 13, 2012 after I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival. I am reprinting it here as it hits limited theaters this weekend.