Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Accomplishing what Robert Zemeckis’ Flight could not, James Ponsoldt’s Smashed offers a homey, genuine take on alcoholism. Instead of milking the topic to the point of sterilization, Ponsoldt’s and co-writer Susan Burke’s indie approach allows the material to breathe and blossom through sympathetic characters and a warm yet casual directorial style. A mercifully short 75-minute runtime also helps.
A hard-partying 20something L.A. couple, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) love to drink. Each night seems to consist of going out, getting drunk, and wandering back home in a joyful daze. That is until one morning, when a hungover Kate vomits in front of her first graders, prompting a student to ask if she’s pregnant. Unwilling to accept responsibility for her actions, Kate embraces the excuse and that night is back to her freewheeling ways. It isn’t until she awakes in a deserted lot after smoking crack that she admits there might be a problem.
Wake-up call in hand, Kate takes the suggestion from vice principal Dave Davies (Nick Offerman) and begins attending AA meetings. In the bravery of taking that step, and throughout Kate’s roller-coaster struggle for sobriety, Winstead shows impressive range. Funny yet vulnerable, Kate’s larger quest for maturity is an alluring hook for anyone who’s recognized a need for growth. Her problem diagnosed and initial moves taken toward recovery, it’s a pleasure to witness her bloom in spite of the lack of support from her immediate circle. The quiet power Winstead brings to rebuilding a life built on honesty is remarkable, and when she endures subtle betrayals by those who should be aiding her progress, the fallout is that much more effective.
Ponsoldt and Burke wisely treat this journey as a coming-of-age tale, though with the central characters a decade or so beyond the typical young adult epiphany stage. Not confined to first love or following one’s dream, Smashed‘s concept of finding oneself is elevated within the decidedly adult theaters of marriage, work, and addiction. Helping to carry Kate’s emotional weight are a cluster of strong supporting characters, some of whom factor into multiple sides of her maturation. The easy favorite is Dave, a fellow alcoholic whose commitment to honesty results in a surreal confession, but the writing is so sharp that even a fairly stereotypical character like Jenny (Octavia Spencer), Kate’s been-there-done-that sponsor, feels fresh and alive.
Throughout Kate’s evolution, Tobias Datum’s tasteful handheld (read: not shaky) camerawork provides intimate access to the characters. Further lending levity to the material is a soothing acoustic soundtrack, courtesy of Fruit Bats frontman Eric D. Johnson and Andy Cabic, that brings a pleasant Portland vibe to what could have been an unpleasant L.A. story. Refusing to wax excessively in the depressing aspects of addiction, Smashed takes a more nuanced route, and even when the film’s lone super intense scene arises, its rawness is executed with class. Equally unwilling to shy away from alcoholism’s rougher aspects, no parties involved pretend that it’s easy material to stomach, but the hard work behind and in front of the camera make this thoughtful take well worthwhile.
Rated R for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use.
Smashed is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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