In the opening scenes of “Smashed,” Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate Hannah immediately reveals herself to be a full-fledged alcoholic. She wakes up hungover, swigs beer in the shower, and sneaks a flew sips from her flask before walking into work… as an elementary school teacher. In the middle of class, Kate vomits, causing a student to ask if she’s pregnant — to which she responds in the affirmative, a lie that she then repeats to the principal to hide the ugly truth.
With a less skilled lead actress, the movie would have likely been a non-starter, coming across as desperate to shock the viewer into recognizing how destructive alcoholism can be with such an overtly dramatic scene. After all, there are an estimated 12 million-plus alcoholics in the U.S. and the vast majority of them avoid behaviors as scandalous as puking in front of a room full of schoolchildren. But Winstead has the disease down pat, astutely focusing on Kate’s desperation to hide her addiction and its consequences rather her drunkenness itself. Thus, Kate’s vomiting incident does not come across as overly provocative; it’s just the latest alcohol-related snafu for which she must find an excuse so that she can keep drinking.
Shortly thereafter, Kate hits rock-bottom when, after a night of imbibing at a local bar, she agrees to smoke crack with a homeless woman and wakes up in an empty lot near downtown L.A. (This is another example of a shocking sequence that Winstead alone sells by so convincingly inhabiting the dark places that alcoholism can cause one to reach.) Determined to get sober, she joins a co-worker (Nick Offerman, in a considerably different role from Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”) at his regular Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
What follows is one addict’s journey to get sober — straightforward and unfettered. The only time that writer/director James Ponsoldt makes his presence known is the occasional handheld extreme close-up. “Smashed” is driven by its performances, even though the writing aids them along the way. Complementing Winstead’s gut-wrenching turn in the lead, Aaron Paul (TV’s “Breaking Bad”) deftly plays the crucial role of her husband, whose own sustained drinking threatens Kate’s sobriety. “Smashed” is unique in this respect; few films about addiction tackle codependency, and Paul’s depiction of a man who is not yet ready to confront his own problem in the way that his wife has hers is spot-on. Nick Offerman’s supporting performance feels equally real, straying from the conventional depiction of long-recovered alcoholics as reborn saints, as does Octavia Spencer’s as Kate’s sponsor.
For as compellingly acted as “Smashed” is, however, the film as a whole has little original to say. Certainly, it will resonate emotionally with those in recovery, those thinking about getting clean, and those who have chemically-dependent family members. High school Health teachers would be wise to start screening the film, for it’s far more realistic than the public service announcements that they usually play. But what’s the ultimate message of “Smashed”? Drugs are bad? Sobriety is tough, especially when one’s spouse isn’t sober as well? Alcohol can wreak just as much havoc on a person’s body and mind as so-called hard drugs? Everyone already knows these things. The film settles for perceptivity over transcendence.