From Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to Leaving Las Vegas, to the recently released Flight, alcoholism has been the subject of many movies. Smashed is a worthy addition to this list.
Smashed tells the story of Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Charlie Hannah (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad), a hard-partying married couple whose relationship is tested when Kate, the main character, decides to give up alcohol.
Alcoholism runs in Kate’s family. Her now-estranged, poor alcoholic mother’s idea of grocery shopping was waiting for fast-food burgers to go on sale so that she could buy meals in bulk and freeze them for later.
The film introduces Kate at the height of her addiction, very drunk and very happy, partying with Charlie. The opening scenes, which follow the couple as they drink heavily at bars before proceeding to bike home, are filmed beautifully in a surreal fashion, hinting at the escapism that alcohol provides for the pair.
The negative effects of this behaviour become noticeable, however, as Kate’s alcoholism begins to impinge on her life. Kate is incapable of facing daily life sober, drinking a hip flask of whiskey stashed in her car on the way to work teaching first grade at a local elementary school. Her heavy drinking leads to her wetting the bed (not for the first time, according to Charlie) and smoking crack with a homeless person.
Kate pukes on the floor in front of her students, who assume she is pregnant. She does nothing to dissuade them. This leads to Kate’s decision to stop drinking and a humorous yet melancholy subplot with the school’s principal (Megan Mullally, Will and Grace). The principal is sympathetic to Kate, living vicariously through Kate’s fake pregnancy as Kate decides how to handle the situation.
Kate’s decision to get sober is handled differently than other movies of this type. While AA helps her abstain from alcohol, it does not fix the problems that led to her alcoholism. Positive aspects of her life begin to suffer through the journey.
The film glimpses at Kate’s past through throwaway comments and sometimes drunken rants. Her troubled past and home life helps keep Kate sympathetic throughout the film.
Smashed spends little time dissecting Kate’s battle with sobriety, focusing more on hazy memories than her current struggle. Her dependence is stated, yet she breezes through a year of sobriety with only one notable instance of lapse. Kate’s relationships with her heavy drinking friends and husband change incrementally as the runtime nears its end. This part of the movie feels rushed, but it is still effective and allows the film to cram in as much of Kate’s personal development as possible.
One striking thing about Smashed is how plausible it feels. Even minor characters have clear motivations and don’t act like cardboard stand-ins.
The story is not forced and every character’s arc follows what one would expect to happen in real life. Although the movie does not have any resounding resolution, the ending seems right for Smashed. The ending does not cement Kate’s character too much; the film focuses on a short period in her life and acknowledges that she has many years left to develop.
The acting is great across the board and Winstead’s performance in the film is the best of her career.
The relatively unknown director James Ponsoldt knows when to tighten the camera’s focus and when to step back. Most of Ponsoldt’s takes are long, shot in fluid motion and highlight the solid performances of the cast. The film’s pacing is brisk and the run-time flies by.
Smashed is a solid character piece with bits of humour, whimsy and solid performances.
Smashed is playing at the Roxy until Dec. 5.