If there’s one thing that movies have taught us over the years, it’s that drinkin’ ain’t easy. Ok, so maybe things like the James Bond movies, The Hangover, or, inadvertently, anything starring Dean Martin showed that having a casual cocktail or six won’t cause any harm, but that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been plenty of films from The Lost Weekend on to showcase the terrible pains of alcoholism. So, when an awards season contender rolls around that promises to depict a painful battle with the bottle, it tends to make us lowly film critic folk a little nervous. There are only so many ways to tell the same story and it’s not like a new one is going to throw in a twist like making alcoholism seem like a positive life choice. Yet, somehow co-writer/director James Ponsoldt’s (Off the Black, another sad drinking tale) manages to find a way to make stale themes feel fresh. You can give credit Ponsoldt’s unflinching honesty as a filmmaker and/or the flat out remarkable work of his cast, but either way there’s no denying that Smashed works far better than it should based purely on the painful familiarity of the material.
Part of what keeps the movie from feeling too redundant is the fact that Ponsoldt starts with his protagonist at rock bottom, with no need to watch a slow burn fall into addiction. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim) stars as a woman for whom drinking is a lifestyle rather than a hobby. She opens the film having wet the bed before having a drink while brushing her teeth and taking a shot from a secret flask in the parking lot for her day job as a Grade 3 teacher. Considering her hungover start to the day, Winstead seems chipper and talented in class, before suddenly vomiting in front of the room. The children innocently as if she’s pregnant and to avoid any issues, she simply says “yes.” Soon her principal (Megan Mullally) is offering congratulations, while her vice principal (Nick Offerman) reveals that he was a former addict himself and offers to take her to AA. She refuses, but after the next night sees her try crack for the first time and casually wake up in a ditch, she decides that she might have a problem. So, Winstead gets sober, which isn’t easy since her boyfriend (Aaron Paul) has no intention of doing the same and their relationship was heavily based on boozing. Plus there’s the matter of Winstead’s lifelong casual alcoholic mother and that whole “pregnancy” lie that everyone at her school believes. Yep, drinking might be rough, but getting sober ain’t easy either folks.
As you’d expect, Smashed is one of those movies that lives and dies on the acting. Shot with handheld cameras and with a script following a particularly intimate and small narrative, this isn’t a movie grand visuals or complex mysteries. Nope, it’s a sobering (excuse the pun) exploration of the life of Winstead’s character with Ponsoldt’s camera focusing on every ugly little nook and cranny. Winstead is fearless and undeniably strong in the title role. In the past, she’s primarily done genre movies and clearly relishes the chance to play a straight dramatic role, never shying away from the character’s darkest impulses. There isn’t a moment when the actress doesn’t feel completely honest and revealing in a role and she could and should get her some awards attention. Aaron Paul is strong as her deadbeat boyfriend, though he’s sadly not as prominent of a figure in the film as he is in the marketing. The guy is ultimately just a charming drunk throughout and the character has more than a little of Breaking Bad’s Jessse in him. Still, there’s no denying Paul’s screen presence and he deserves big screen work. Octavia Spencer also offers a solid grounding presence as Winstead’s AA sponcer, while Mary Kay Place gets an excellent single scene as Winstead’s mother that explains their entire relationship without feeling expositional. However, the movie’s real scene-stealers are Megan Mullally as the easily duped principal and Nick Offerman as the helpful former alche vice-principal with leering creepy middle aged dude eyes for Winstead. Both actors show off range beyond what you’d expect from their TV comedy background, while also offering bursts of humor without detracting from the film’s serious intentions.
Those bursts of humor come throughout the film, they aren’t just attributed to the two comedians, and are a big reason why the movie works as well as it does. This isn’t a dreary after school addiction special that presents booze as a substance designed to produce pain. Ponsoldt is always willing to show the fun that can be had from heavy drinking, while also allowing natural moments of humor to slip in throughout the tragedy. That approach works in two key ways, first it’s realistic and second it prevents the story from becoming overbearing. Now, you can’t exactly describe a movie about someone’s life collapsing as being fun, but at least Smashed isn’t two hours of misery porn. It’s a refreshingly honest portrait of alcoholism that has a message it never hammers on the head too hard, delivered by actors working at the top of their game. This won’t be the most original film that you’re likely to see as Oscar season wonders into the multiplex and makes everyone pretend to take movies seriously for a few months, but it will be one of those most entertaining and subtle entries on your Oscar pool. Given how heavy-handed dramas get this time of year, those simple pleasures offer a welcome relief. Smashed might not be become an instant classic, but it is one awards-courting indie that actually deserves the attention inevitably coming its way.