Alcoholism is a serious problem. We know that. Addiction can, and usually does, ruins lives. We know that. A lot of people find Alcoholics Anonymous a life-saver (although its effectiveness is debatable). We know that. On the page, Smashed doesn’t bring anything new to the table. A young woman struggles to deal with her alcoholism and how her new-found sobriety creates its own problems. But what transforms Smashed from a good-yet-predictable clean-and-sober tale is Mary Elizabeth Winstead giving the best performance of her career thus far.
Kate (Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are a happily married and happily drunk couple. They’re right on the borderline of functional, but Kate begins to trip over that line when she vomits in front of her first-grade students, makes a panicked lie about being pregnant, and later that night she smokes crack for the first time. Her life is now waking up in odd places and not knowing how she got there. When she decides she’s hit bottom, Kate goes into AA and tries to sober up, but her new path seriously jeopardizes her job and her marriage.
I won’t deny that Alcoholics Anonymous and other “Anonymous” groups have helped millions upon millions of people. And depending on how you define “effectiveness”, AA somehow manages to be one of the best programs for overcoming addiction even though it was co-founded by a former drunk instead of doctors and scientists. But it’s also controversial for its reliance on “steps”, and forcing adherents to acknowledge a “higher power” (sorry, atheist alcoholics). Co-writer and director James Ponsoldt strips out the uncomfortable elements of AA and keeps its focus on being a support group. We know they stumble around, make mistakes, jeopardize relationships, and feel remorse. Smashed goes to the other side and shows how the cure, at the outset, can be worse than the disease. Unfortunately, the answer lies in AA.
Some actors are only as good as the material they’re given. Other actors are good no matter what material they’re given. With Smashed, Winstead proves she’s the latter. We’ve seen alcoholics in movies before and we’ll see them again. She plays a convincing drunk, but the strength of her performance is in watching Kate fight for every single moment of her sobriety. A scene where Kate talks about her alcoholism at her first AA meeting is absolutely devastating, not because she’s done horrible, unforgivable things, but because it’s the first time she’s probably ever admitted out-loud how unhappy she is.
The meetings and the program are a fine part of the process, but Winstead heading towards a confrontation with Charlie is the most heart-breaking part of the movie. Smashed doesn’t rush to set Kate at odds with her husband. On the contrary, we get to see how much they love each other and the movie doesn’t rush to put a wedge between them as soon as Kate goes sober. Nor does the film make Charlie out to be a selfish bastard because he keeps drinking even though it makes Kate’s life more difficult. If it were easy for Kate to leave Charlie, then her struggle for her sobriety would carry less weight. However, the chemistry between Paul and Winstead is absolutely essential, and Paul matches his co-stars powerful performance.
AA doesn’t need to advertise. Courts will sentence people to it even though it has religious undertones, and it can’t be studied under scientific controls. But it’s the most well-known path to sobriety, and Ponsoldt decides to use it for his story. Despite turning the focus more to a personal struggle with sobriety rather than drunkenness, the story would still fall into the territory of being a feature-length PSA. Thanks to Winstead’s great performance, stops Kate from being a spokesperson and makes the character a real person. Winstead grounds the movie with a compelling, difficult performance that breaks away from easy melodrama and embraces the bittersweet and heartbreaking consequences a better life can bring.
For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: