A terrific performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a rock-bottom alcoholic is only one reason to appreciate “Smashed,” an affecting and immersive addiction drama about the unforeseen pitfalls along the road to recovery. Scribe-helmer James Ponsoldt’s sad, funny and strangely exuberant second feature weaves a few plot strands too many as it pushes its protag toward her big moment of cathartic self-reckoning, but is enhanced by a rich, offbeat sense of life teeming in the margins. Distribs would do well to emphasize the picture’s engaging, non-depressive approach to admittedly hard-sell material that will need critical support to get anywhere commercially.
Evincing the same character-driven instincts and knack with actors apparent in his underseen 2006 debut, “Off the Black,” but this time employing a lurching handheld camera to capture the story’s emotional upheaval, Ponsoldt pitches the viewer directly into a typically chaotic morning for Kate (Winstead) and her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul). Drinking comes as easy and frequent as breathing to this Los Angeles couple, as is made clear when hungover Kate swigs a beer in the shower and then, right before work, takes a few surreptitious sips of whisky from a flask she keeps in her car.
To the viewer’s considerable horror, Kate turns out to be a second-grade schoolteacher, and it’s in her classroom that her latest binge catches up with her in singularly humiliating and professionally problematic fashion. When a second drinking session ends with Kate spending a long night alone on the street, she realizes how low she’s sunk, and eventually agrees to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with her school’s vice principal, Mr. Davies (Nick Offerman), who’s nine years sober.
As Kate bonds with her AA sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer), and takes tentative but effective steps toward sobriety, Ponsoldt’s screenplay (co-written with Susan Burke) sketches a portrait of the forces that nurtured her addiction and now oppose her recovery. Not least among them are Kate’s own frequently sozzled mother (Mary Kay Place) and Charlie, a roguishly handsome layabout more disturbed by his wife’s newfound sense of responsibility than by her habit of boozily wandering the streets.
Ponsoldt’s pic is honest enough to acknowledge that Kate and Charlie’s old life was a lot of fun, characterized by long, woozy bike rides, heavily liquored nights at karaoke bars and pool halls, and plenty of rough but affectionate sex. Suzanne Spangler’s alert editing and a swinging, upbeat score by Eric D. Johnson and Andy Cabic extract humor even from moments that should be, and sometimes still are, properly appalling.
Indeed, “Smashed” is at times almost too entertaining for its own good, and a bit overinclined to spell out its lessons, a flaw mitigated somewhat by the inherently confessional, accountability-driven nature of recovery. A subplot involving Kate’s relationship with the school’s unsuspecting principal (a wonderful Megan Mullally), feels somewhat engineered to precipitate a climactic meltdown, and the film’s extended coda similarly goes out of its way to tie things up.
Overcoming most of these reservations, finally, is the drama’s sheer emotional generosity and the driving force of its lead performance. Most familiar to audiences from her supporting turns in such studio action/fanboy fare as “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Grindhouse,” Winstead at last gets to sink her teeth into a meaty role; the performance is effective largely due to the extreme contrast between the smart, articulate and resolved young woman Kate is at her core and the angry, raving drunk she so easily and frighteningly becomes.
The uniformly excellent supporting cast is anchored by Paul as Kate’s unsupportive but sympathetic husband; Spencer, radiating warmth and wisdom; and Offerman, whose burly, straight-laced Mr. Davies is the source of the film’s most unexpected laughs. Tech credits are deliberately on the grungy side, and Kate and Charlie’s shambling L.A. home is the very picture of lived-in messiness.