One of the best recent films about addiction of any kind, Smashed serves as familiar material for director James Ponsoldt, whose previous film Off the Black piercingly examined the chronic alcoholism of an ageing baseball umpire. This time opting to observe the effects of alcohol addiction upon younger subjects, Ponsoldt mines co-writer Susan Burke’s own substance abuse issues to produce a riveting, affecting, superbly acted drama.
As much as it is about alcoholism, Smashed is first and foremost a love story; the opening scenes of the film in which we meet married couple Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul), it is clear that their mutual love of alcohol only strengthens their bond and enhances their love for one another. Ponsoldt also plausibly demonstrates how they function – albeit scarcely – in their day-to-day lives; Charlie lives off his rich parents, while Kate teaches young schoolchildren, her drunkenness making her seem larger than life and cartoonish to the kids, which of course they love. However, after an inebriated Kate smokes crack, she decides that something has to change, yet getting sober won’t be easy, especially as Charlie’s ambivalence to the change threatens to drag them both towards a state of alcohol-fuelled oblivion.
Like Steve McQueen’s fantastic sex addiction drama Shame, Smashed offers some subtle suggestions as to the root, if there is one, of Kate’s addiction, but smartly offers no firm answers, and refuses to dissect either of their conditions with pop psychology. What Ponsoldt does best is immerse us in the reality of their lives, specifically the difficulties of getting sober, of accepting that what you do is problematic, even though everyone else around you continues to do it. Being taken seriously by those closest to you – namely your family – appears to be one of the most challenging areas, and the key, the film suggests, is to attach yourself to people who are willing to fall in line with it.
Though Smashed is an emotionally gripping, often wrenching film about the magnetic appeal of alcohol to two young people, it is also extremely funny at times, revelling in the blackly comic depravity of Kate and Charlie’s alcohol-related antics. What truly elevates it beyond a typical addiction drama, however, are the magnificent performances, particularly that of up-and-comer Winstead. Utterly free of vanity, Winstead appears before us with the only make-up being to worsen her complexion; her washed-out, pimpled face alongside her homely mode of dress further notes the weathering effects of her self-abuse. Winstead is sure to catch the lion’s share of the praise, but Paul is a transfixing presence himself, a wonderfully subdued pillar of apathy, perennially stuck in an boozy stupor, if as a result somewhat difficult to separate from his Breaking Bad character.
Supporting performances are also outstanding across the board; of particularly note as Octavia Spencer as Kate’s AA sponsor, Megan Mullally as her sympathetic boss, and Nick Offerman as her colleague, who happens to be a recovering alcoholic. Granted, one storyline involving Offerman’s character does feel a tad on the forced side, but Ponsoldt thankfully ends up making a joke out of it, and so just about manages to prevent the film from becoming mired in car-crash awkwardness.
Though the strangely playful soundtrack seems a little at-odds with the serious treatment – a by-product of its indie film style, no doubt – Smashed is on the whole an absorbing and sympathetic film. At 85 minutes (in fact, it’s less than 80 minus the credits) it also does feel very short, but then the film is nothing if not a snapshot; to this effect, it is unsurprisingly ambiguous, leaving the characters with decisions to make beyond the confines of the picture itself. Whether Kate kicks alcohol for good, and whether she can reconcile this within a romantic framework is for our minds to decide.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the jaw-dropping stand-out in this gripping addiction drama, which examines the toxic power of alcohol with probing intimacy.
Smashed is released in UK cinemas December 14th.
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