Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer
Running Time: 85 minutes
Synopsis: The life and times of a young couple in Los Angeles dealing with alcoholism and rehabilitation…
The term ‘Sundance indie hit’ has been so often used it brings a shudder to hardened film critics and casual viewers alike. Does the term simply mean yet another low budget rambling human drama?
Films about alcohol addiction are never ‘pleasurable’ viewing. Think LEAVING LAS VEGAS or WHEN A MAN LOVE A WOMAN. Marriage, relationship breakdowns, wallowing emotions, criminal activity, death, are staples of such films.
But tonally, SMASHED is closer to 1962’s DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES. Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a fun loving primary school teacher. She is the soul of the party when she’s drunk, not adverse to a bout of karaoke singing belting out ‘Cruel to be Kind’. Her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul) is also a hard-partying type, which isn’t much of a problem for him as he works from home as a music journalist.
But trouble is brewing for Kate, as she needs to fuel her alcohol addiction in the shower before work and then again in the car before walking into her school. This ends badly with her vomiting in front of her class and having to explain it away to the class and headmaster as a case of morning sickness due to pregnancy.
Dave (Nick Offerman), the deputy headmaster who sees Kate’s secret imbibing gently takes her under his wings and encourages her to go to Alcoholic Anonymous. Dave has been sober himself for nine years through the regular attendance at the AA.
So what raises this film above the level of a Jeremy Kyle episode to a well-observed portrait on alcoholism and marriage breakdown? The key is the honest performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She has a reputation as a ‘scream queen’, having played supporting roles in a string of horror films, such as THE RING 2, FINAL DESTINATION 3 and BLACK CHRISTMAS. Her presence here is a complete revelation, a terrifically naturalistic performance that never resorts to emotional overkill.
There’s also strong support from other cast members, particularly Aaron Paul as Kate’s partner in crime, who realises too late their mutual bond over the bottle will ultimately lead to their breakup. Nick Offerman is also superb as the nerdy work colleague with a creepy infatuation for Kate. However, Octavia Spencer as Kate’s AA sponsor is criminally underused.
The screenplay – written by James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke – could easily be seen as semi-autobiographical, with Susan Burke having quit drinking at the age of 24. James Ponsoldt also does a credible job directing the film in a matter-of-fact style, never overly dramatising events or going ‘preachy’. In fact, one of the best lines is near the end of the film from Kate: ‘They say your best day drinking is worse than your worst day sober, but it’s not true! I had amazing times drinking, laughing, feeling like the most adorable, charming girl in the world.’
Alcoholism might not be an easy viewing subject matter, but in Ponsoldt’s hands it is a short, sharp accurate portrayal of a difficult subject matter.
SMASHED is in UK cinemas now.