I have a strange schedule that requires being awake at strange hours. This necessitates some prioritization in the films I have for review. I tend to watch the big blockbusters with their robust sound tracks for the daylight hours when my family is either awake or out and about. The wee hours of the night I tend to reserve for my personal favorites, the independent films that tend to be intense emotionally but more on the quite side with the audio. It was during one of these late night viewings that I settled in to watch a film that caught my eye the moment I first opened it ‘Smashed’. Admittedly one of the factors that initially piqued my interested was the lead actors. Aaron Paul has been making a name for himself in the rarified realm of original cable programming first in HBO’s ‘Big Love’ followed by a pivotal role in the AMC series ‘Breaking Bad’. The female was just as fascinating, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She appeared in a central role in the cancelled too soon TV series, ‘ Wolf Lake’ followed with movie roles in the latest incarnation of the science fiction movie, ‘The Thing’ moving on to parts in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ and ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’. Both of these actors are stars on the rise and have proven they are talents to watch as their careers blossom.
Alcoholism is arguably one of the most egalitarian diseases around. There are no boundaries regarding gender, age or socio-economic status. Most people in the audience have firsthand experience with alcoholism either from personal involvement or through family and close friends. Because of this it is a perennial favorite with filmmakers throughout the decades. The emotional intensity that is intrinsically part of this disease and the broad reaching effects that extend beyond the patient to seriously afflict those closest to the alcoholic assures the filmmaker a rich tapestry to present a meaningful story as well as a solid foundation of understanding and the all-important relatable nature of the subject matter affords him a solid basis for a film of substance. In the case of ‘Smashed’ it is the type of story best related through the intimate venue of the independent film. The dedication shown in any movie by its cast, crew and creators is traditionally amplified in the Indy production. When fiscal concerns are placed secondary to artistry the magic inherent in the artistic expression of cinema has an opportunity to soar; ‘Smashed’ is a perfect example of this phenomenon.
Kate ((Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie Hannah (Aaron Paul) are a married couple in their twenties. They are in love sharing their enjoyment of having a good time. For them this typically involves sizable quantities of alcoholic beverages. Charlie is a music critic whose job frequently takes him to bars and other venues to listen to new performer. Kate has a more traditional job of teaching first grade, a vocation she greatly enjoys. Both Kate and Charlie are aware they drink a lot more than normal but console themselves with the usual platitudes that there alcohol consumption doesn’t interfere with their lives. In fact it enhances their enjoyment of it. As the movie gets underway the audience is given a chance to watch as the fallacy of that assumption comes crashing down. Kate and Charlie were at bar, as usual, drinking with Charlie’s brother, Owen (Kyle Gallner). Kate has to get up early for work the next morning so she leaves for home. Outside Kate sees another young woman Freda (Bree Turner), outside drunk and obviously in some form of distress. She needs a ride home so reluctantly Kate offers to drive her home. On the way they stop, Freda asking if she can smoke, instead of the cigarette Kate expected Freda takes out a crack pipe and proceeds to take a hit. She offers some to Kate, whose common sense were abandoned several rounds of drinks ago, so she accepts. The next thing Kate realizes is she blacked out in a vacant lot. Locating her car she goes back home and eventually to work.
Kate is in bad shape, besides one devastating hangover she is crashing from her experience with smoking crack cocaine. The children are lively and Kate ill prepared to deal with them at that moment. Kate vomits in front of the kids and when one child mentions her mother the up when expecting her sibling. Desperate, Kate seizes on the excuse. Later Kate is called into the office of her boss, Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally) who, thinking Kate is pregnant, tells her to take the morning off. The incident and Kate’s general behavior was not unnoticed by a fellow teacher, Dave Davies (Nick Offerman). He tells her he knows she was drunk because he is a recovering alcoholic. He offers to take her to an AA meeting. The glimmer of realization regarding how dire her situation is agrees. Initially, Kate is somewhat overwhelmed but found one speaker, Jenny (Octavia Spencer) interesting. With Dave’s encouragement Kate approaches Jenny who offers to become her sponsor.
Kate is earnest in her commitment to recovery. She gives up drinking and tries to impress upon Charlie how serious this is to her. Charlie make a meager attempt to placate his wife, more shocked over her confession about the crack that her need to quit drinking. Kate’s life doesn’t quickly improve as she hoped. The Principal throws her a baby shower and Dave makes an unwanted advance towards her. Kate tries to mend bridges by visiting her mother, Rochelle (Mary Kay Place). The audience receives insight as to part of the etiology of Kate’s drinking problem. Mom is drunk even though it’s still morning, offering Kate a drink. Put off by her daughter’s refusal of her ‘hospitality’, Rochelle dismisses her daughter’s sobriety as a phase that will soon pass. The betrayal Kate feels is amplified when she discovers Charlie told Owen about the crack making it a joke.
The pressure to remain sober increase as does her need to embrace an unfamiliar concept, honesty. When asked by her class why she isn’t fat Kate tells them she isn’t pregnant. The class appears to consist of a group of pro-life first graders who begin to call their teacher a ‘baby killer’. The ruckus brings Kate back to the principal’s office were she confesses she was never pregnant. The drinking is revealed and Kate is summarily fired. The accumulations of stress factors are too much for Kate to take and she relapses. Turning to Jenny for help Kate resumes working the program and continue to make drastic changes in her life. The final act of the story we find Kate receiving her one year chip. She has found a new job, albeit with less pay, and has separated from Charlie moving in to her own place. Charlie wants to get back together but Kate realizes the relationship was toxic, based on a mutual drunken stupor. Kate is finally on her way to the elusive state of happiness.
James Ponsoldt is filmmaker building towards this opus for a while. He built is writing and directorial styles with several short pieces leading up to a spectacular debut in feature length movies. This film exhibits an emotional depth and sense of realism that would be exceedingly difficult to achieve under the constraints imposed by a major studio. Exemplifying the nature and importance of independent movies Ponsoldt is able to transcend the expectations of a movie concerned with alcoholism to delve into several of the realistic twist that frequently accompany this life changing course. Kate experienced the bottom that inevitably precedes that all-important first step; admitting to the problem. To Kate the crack incident was only part of it. Ponsoldt depicts in meticulous detail how Kate’s life was spiraling out of control. Around 2 am she tries to purchase alcohol only to be told by the clerk it’s illegal at that hour. Kate squats, urinates, and steals a bottle of wine. Her life become untenable, drinking could no longer cover her pain; Kate realizes it is the core of her problems.
Ponsoldt is stylistically insightful and beautifully executed. He has an innate understanding of how to frame and light a shot in order to illicit an intense emotional response from the audience. You don’t so much watch this movie you are drawn into it experience the despair Kate feels and ultimately the nascent joy Kate feels in her sobriety. He also is able to bring out the talent of his cast. Paul is familiar with playing an addict as demonstrated with his part on ‘Breaking Bad’. Here he infuses a fundamentally unlikable character with the proper degree of layering to allow the audience to contrast his continued denial with Kate’s new found perspective. The part of Kate is brought to life by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She has had a variety of characters in her career but this one provided her with a means to showcase her considerable talent. Ms Winstead imbues Kate with a pathos that under Mr. Ponsoldt script and direction enfolds the viewer surrounding us in a need to want the best fir her character. In all this is a remarkably touching film that speaks to the humanity in all of us.
Commentary With Director James Ponsoldt & Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead