‘Smashed’: Sobering

October 10, 2012

The best films about recovery from addiction are not about reaching rock bottom and making that choice to stop.

Rather, like “Smashed,” they’re about the very real and difficult task of going on, in an emotionally unshielded and intensely vulnerable way. Addiction, after all, isn’t about loving the substance and what it does for you; it’s about the way it muffles, numbs and otherwise blocks actual feelings from intruding on the user’s world.

That’s what James Ponsoldt understands and what makes “Smashed” so affecting. Ostensibly the story about a couple named Charlie and Kate (Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who enjoy drinking a little too much, it’s really the examination of what happens to them when Kate does hit a bottom of sorts and decides to stop.

The warning signs are there. An elementary-school teacher who lives in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, Kate spends her evenings at the local bar with her trust-fund-baby husband Charlie, partying until late – even though she sometimes drinks so much that she winds up wetting the bed.

One day (probably most days), she is so hung-over that, sitting in her car in the school parking lot, she takes a couple of shots from a personal flask just to start the morning. Then she goes to face her kids – and promptly vomits into the wastebasket in the middle of class.

When one of the kids wonders aloud whether she is, in fact, pregnant, she lies and says that, yes, this is why she’s sick. Before she knows it, her meddling school principal (Megan Mullally) has heard the news and put together a baby shower for her.

But her act hasn’t fooled the school’s assistant principal, Mr. Davies (Nick Offerman), who recognizes a fellow alcoholic when he sees one. He admits that he spotted her taking nips from the flask, admits that he’s a Friend of Bill, and offers to take her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

She demurs, going home to tell Charlie that, perhaps, they should cut back: “We’ll become those people who just have a little wine with dinner,” he jokes. But soon enough, they wind up back at their local bar. One night, she drunkenly offers a stranger a ride home, then ends up smoking crack with the woman. The next morning, she regains consciousness on the ground under a highway overpass, unsure where her car might be.

So, yes, she thinks, perhaps I can give AA a try. And her life changes in ways she doesn’t anticipate.

Those changes are the crux of “Smashed,” as Kate discovers just what it is that she’s been hiding from all these years. She’s a sharp young woman who has spent years dulling those edges with drink. Suddenly she’s wide open to everything she’s been hiding from, including how aimless her husband’s life is – and how that tends to pull her down.

Winstead, with a fresh, open face, is heart-breakingly real as Kate, a woman who can’t quite let herself focus – on anything – until she stops drinking. The script, by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke, is never preachy; instead, as Kate becomes involved in the recovery community (including her sponsor, played by painfully real Octavia Spencer), her realizations are expressed by her behavior, her expression, her physicality.

Paul has a wonderfully fluid quality as the easy-riding Charlie, a guy who has no particular ambitions and, so, no particular disappointments. He’s happy to roll in a slightly sloshed condition, content that he’s found a partner in crime, unhappy when he’s deserted.

Spencer and Offerman are also exceptional – but, really, this is Winstead’s film. It’s a performance worthy of awards – whether Oscars or from critics – because it’s such a painfully honest and unadorned piece of work.

With “Smashed,” Winstead leaps out of the pack as a serious actress, one whose talents should be further mined and explored by being offered the strongest material from the best directors.

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