From the story of doomed lovers with a penchant for heroin, (think Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish in Candy) to biopics of individuals who succumb to their addictions (Gia, Factory Girl), substance abuse is the subject that keeps on giving.
Depicted through countless filmmakers’ lenses these films have a tendency to glamorize addiction by linking it to a specific locations or by making relationships seem more intense and passionate as a result of the use of drugs and alcohol.
This is why we’re lucky to have films like James Ponsoldt’s Smashed. The film removes the hazy lens of romanticism and instead favours a clear, hard look at the struggle of alcoholism and trying to get sober.
Elementary school teacher Kate, (played brilliantly by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whom you’ll recognize from the gory horror film Final Destination 3 and borefest Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), is madly in love with her husband Charlie (portrayed by Aaron Paul, best known as Walter White’s sidekick on Breaking Bad.) As much as they love each other, there is a third partner in their relationship, and it’s name is alcohol.
While Charlie is able to drink as much as he wants and still end up sleeping in his own bed, Kate winds up finding herself in different situations, each one more depressing and dangerous than the next. She boozes in her car, steals alcohol when the store clerk won’t sell it to her and unceremoniously throws up in front of her class one morning. But it’s when she ends up smoking crack with a homeless prostitute after leaving the bar one night, that she decides to get sober.
Enter her colleague Dave, played by Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman, who takes her to an AA meeting. There she meets Jenny (Octavia Spencer, who is criminally underused in this film) and seems to be on her way to recovery. Yet Kate faces the biggest roadblock in Charlie, who despises recovery programs. Their relationship begins to disintegrate as he stubbornly keeps drinking while she sulks alone and sober, at home. The turmoil eventually reaches a peak as Kate and Charlie have a tempestuous fight, and it’s both the most memorable and hair-raising moment in the film.
The strongest vein of Smashed is Winstead’s performance, which carries the entire film. While the other actors are equally entrenched in their characters, the script does not allow for them to be as fully fleshed out as Kate, which is unfortunate.
Visually, it’s stunning. The shots where Kate is waking up in parks and under bridges are, despite their starkness, beautiful. Ponsoldt gives a lot of camera time to faces, especially close-ups of Winstead, as if he were trying to use the camera as an x-ray machine to show us exactly what they are thinking.
There’s a reason why Smashed turned heads (and picked up a Special Jury Prize at Sundance this year). There is a tangible sense of reality that permeates through the film. Smashed excels at honestly portraying the stigma of alcoholism and showing how resisting the urge to drink is only the first of the complications that being sober brings.
While an excellent film, its harshness leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, not unlike that of the whiskey Kate favours. But sometimes watching — or doing something that feels difficult is a good thing.
Smashed is playing at Cineplex-Odeon Forum, check your local listings for showtimes.