With all the junk being pumped into movie theaters and into our minds, Smashed is a nice change of pace from the explosions and firefights and into something more modest. There’s something real about this story and these characters, and it’s not quite the train wreck that could put it on par with daytime soap operas. When it comes right down to it, Smashed might be subtle, but it’s moving nonetheless.
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are a young married couple whose bond is built on a mutual love of alcohol, but they soon find themselves on a downward spiral once Kate decides to get sober. The deciding factor in getting sober is one particularly bad hangover that leads Kate to get sick in front of her young students. From there, a rumor is spread that she’s pregnant, and it’s easier to play along with that theory than have to admit to her principal that she just drinks too much. The longer the secret stays, the guiltier she feels, and the harder she tries to clean herself up. It doesn’t help that Charlie, his little brother, and their friends are still constantly drinking in front of her despite her attempts to stay sober, and there’s not much regard to what she might be going through.
The real knockout here is Winstead. She is literally on screen the entire runtime, and she’s engaging throughout. Better yet, she’s believable. There’s one scene in particular with Paul that is heartbreaking and raw to the point where you feel like you’re watching this happen in real life, and if it weren’t so captivating, it’d be uncomfortable to witness such an intimate fight. Some of her past films include Final Destination 3, Black Christmas, and The Thing but if no one took her seriously before, they’ll sure start thinking twice now. This will probably do for her what Martha Marcy May Marlene did for Elizabeth Olsen, and depending on the competition, it could even get her an Oscar nomination.
As a secondary (but still important) character, Paul holds his own, and even though he’s a hot mess, he’s endearing. It’s no surprise that Paul can make someone so damaged as lovable as he is. Take a look at his role in Breaking Bad. It’s scored him three Emmy nominations and two wins, and he’s quickly becoming a fan favorite. His chemistry with Winstead is part of what makes the film work. Their scenes together are electric, both when they’re being affectionate and when they’re having heated shouting matches.
Rounding out the supporting cast is Octavia Spencer as Kate’s AA sponsor, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally as Kate’s coworkers, and Kyle Gallner as Charlie’s little brother. For having such minor roles, they all offer as much as they can, but to be honest, these characters could have been played by complete unknowns. It’s almost a waste for Spencer to go from such a strong role in The Help to this, but maybe she liked the project enough that she didn’t care how minimal her own screen time was. Who knows?
The acting and story are great, but this isn’t for the faint of heart. Writer/director James Ponsoldt doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and he doesn’t hold our hands to walk us through it. It’s a heavy subject, and afterwards, you’ll still feel it weighing on you. Not forever but at least for the rest of the evening.
Bottom line: Smashed is a great script with even greater acting. Everything really comes together as the story unfolds, and it provides just the right amount of drama to feel real and not exaggerated. It’s definitely worth seeing, but once you’ve gotten a taste, it probably won’t be necessary to watch on repeat. Also, keep an eye on Winstead. She’s on a one-way track to Oscar Town.