“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.” “• Charles Bukowski
Director James Ponsoldt‘s first feature-length film, 2006’s Off the Black, featured Nick Nolte as a bitter, flustered high school baseball umpire and alcoholic. His second film, Smashed, stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as Kate Hannah, an elementary school teacher struggling to come to grips with her increasingly troublesome dependency on alcohol, even though her binge-drinking husband Charlie (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) doesn’t see a problem with it.
After a night of heavy drinking, Kate is forced to confront her alcoholism when she vomits in front of her 1st grade class. A precocious young student asks Mrs. Hannah if she’s pregnant, and in a moment of panic she explains the sudden, uncontrollable regurgitation as morning sickness. Her boss, Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally), is delighted by the news that Kate is pregnant and buys the lie hook, line, and sinker.
Assistant Principal Dave Davies (Nick Offerman) knows the truth, however. He saw Kate steal a swig from a flask in the parking lot before going into work. Instead of blowing the whistle on the whole ‘undercover alcoholic’ operation, Davies is the empathetic and understanding companion who genuinely cares about Kate’s well-being. A former addict, Davies convinces Kate to accompany him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where she meets her future sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer).
With the help of Dave and Jenny, Kate works toward sobriety even as her marriage unravels at the seams. Her husband continues to drink and party every night, getting shit-faced and passing out face-down in various locations around the house. Kate is forced to re-evaluate her relationship with Charlie, and worries that being around his self-destructive behavior could prevent her from achieving her own goals.
Written by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke, Smashed is a powerful, thoughtful examination of addiction. Mary Elizabeth Winstead delivers a phenomenal performance, effectively portraying the travails of alcoholism and sobriety without being overly dramatic. Smashed is Winstead’s Rachel Getting Married, making the former scream queen the next Anne Hathaway – a leading actress with impressive range and versatility.
Winstead deserves a nomination for her devastatingly authentic portrayal, and director James Ponsoldt will no doubt join the likes of Marc Webb, Rian Johnson, and Duncan Jones as part of the next generation of great filmmakers.
The script by Ponsoldt and Burke reminds us that alcoholism has no one particular face – it is an affliction that strikes unknowingly – a slow, compounding transformation that can completely change a friend or family member, making them unrecognizable. And while the effects can be devastating, alcoholism is curable – and there’s help out there for people who want it – they need only make the effort.
Shot in 19 days on an estimated budget of $500,000, Smashed is a fantastic indie drama and a real breakout film for Winstead and company. Please check out the Sony Pictures Classics official site for screening and release information and be sure to follow @JamesPonsoldt, @SmashedMovie, @Aaronpaul_8, and @M_E_Winstead on Twitter for more information on this inspiring movie.