Thanks to a heavy dose of realism and the fearless performances of its two leads, Smashed is a riveting take on an old story.
The bitter toll that addiction takes on relationships is nothing new in films, and Smashed is only the latest in a very long line of movies about unions torn asunder by the ravages of substance abuse. In this case, the culprit is alcohol; it has enveloped the lives of married twentysomethings Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul), expanding their frequent leisure time binges into more or less nonstop drinking and often-as-not drunkenness.
As the film opens, it is apparent the two have been generally functional alcoholics for a while. Kate holds down a job as an elementary school teacher, drinking a beer during her morning shower and taking a nip from a flask in her car at the start of each school day. Charlie is functional also, if not exactly gainfully employed; his would-be writing career seems to consist of writing an occasional live music review when not partying with his friends. The couple douses any possible worries with alcohol -- not the best way to confront life's challenges, but hey, it works for them.
Except when it doesn't. After an unfortunate night involving more potent substances and an equally unfortunate episode in front of her class, Kate decides to give sobriety a try, with help from a savvy and sympathetic vice principal, Dave (Nick Offerman). She finds the sobriety thing manageable, if difficult. But dealing with one problem creates another, arguably more difficult one: In the sober light of day, Kate soon realizes she and Charlie may love alcohol more than they love each other.
Again, this is an oft-told tale, and Smashed shows us nothing we haven't seen before. But the film is as potent as any in its genre, with plenty of cringingly authentic scenes, a completely believable narrative arc and absolutely no melodrama. Given its subject, of course Smashed is no feel-good film -- it doesn't sugar-coat Kate and Charlie's booze-induced dysfunction, be it physical, emotional or marital. It's an appropriately dark look at a dark situation and doesn't insult us with easy solutions to the couple's problems. (Smashed is funny at times, but even the humor has painful undertones.)
And then there are Winstead and Paul's dauntless performances. Winstead graces the film with as good an acting effort as I've seen this year, especially early on as Kate stumbles through her scenes in various states of inebriation. Winstead nails every sort of drunk, from karaoke-bar silliness to rambunctious sexual passion to unnerving anger to deep depression. She also nails the more difficult moments of sobriety, especially Kate's reactions when she sees her former behavior reflected in her still-boozing husband. More than just a convincing drunk, Winstead is a convincing former drunk.
As the story centers on Kate, Paul has less screen time as Charlie. But he's every bit as believable as Winstead, painting Charlie as a not quite sympathetic character who doesn't understand his wife when she's sober and makes little effort to help her. Charlie isn't terribly likeable, and Paul wisely doesn't try to make him so.
I'll also tip my hat to Offerman in a role that's a departure from the actor's usual goofball characters. Dave is entirely serious and sincere, if sometimes revoltingly socially inept. (Among other things, he doesn't seem to understand that talking dirty isn't the best way to win a woman's heart.) I'd like to see Offerman in more roles like Dave; he has the acting chops for serious fare, but risks being typecast as variations of Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson.
As good as Smashed is, I wish there were more of it. At barely 80 minutes, the film ends gracefully but too quickly; 15 minutes more of the characters' backstories wouldn't hurt Smashed, and would offer a greater understanding of what drives Kate and Charlie's addictions. The script (co-written by Susan Burke and director James Ponsoldt) is filled with spot-on observations about alcoholism, and more such observations would only benefit an otherwise terrific film.
Winner of a Special Jury Prize and nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Smashed is a sensitive and unflinching look at problem all too familiar to many of us. See it -- but be aware that it may hit very close to home.