What is the moment you recognize that you are an alcoholic? Though Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) had plenty of evidence beforehand, that moment might have been when she, a middle school teacher, threw up in front of her students and claimed to be pregnant instead of explaining that she had a hangover. It must be difficult to be both smart and an alcoholic, to recognize what you are doing to yourself but being unable to stop. Think of the shame you would feel when months later your coworkers are throwing you a surprise baby shower for a child you never carried.
These are the insights of Smashed (2012), a terrific movie by James Ponsoldt, one that knows a lot about alcoholism and human nature. When we first meet Kate, she’s dragging herself out of bed still in her evening clothes, a bed she has wetted. Her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), appears to be used to this. “I have a weak bladder,” she offers as an excuse. That’s part of it. By the time that day closes, she will have lied about being pregnant and tried, in a drunken debauch, crack for the first time. In a drugged frenzy at dawn she tells a group of uninterested hobos that despite appearances she and the homeless have a lot in common. We fear that may be true.
Kate’s coworker, played by Nick Offerman, reveals to her that he is a recovering alcoholic and that he knows a problem when he sees one. He offers to take her to an AA meeting. There Kate finds a sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer), and becomes committed to sobriety. This is when her troubles truly begin.
My problem with movies about addiction, particularly American ones, is that they treat the disease as a narrative device, allowing it to pop up when it makes for the juiciest drama, regardless of what emotional truth that might betray. Lately, I have hope that that malaise is fading away. The Norwegian movie Oslo, August 31st (2012) was a wonderful exercise in the never-ending assault of reasons to fall off the wagon. More heartening still is that Smashed does this even better (Hollywood, however, still has a ways to go, as Flight  was a true culprit in the “addiction-as-device” mold).
Poor Kate is getting it from all sides. Not only is she married to another alcoholic, one who is more functional and therefore doesn’t believe he needs to quit, but her mother also blames her ex-husband’s recovery for the destruction of their marriage and furthers the distrust Charlie has for Kate’s choice to go dry. On top of that is the guilt she feels at work for being celebrated as an expecting mother, most pointedly from the barren school principal who is all but living her desire for children through Kate. Worse still, her coworker sullies her entire introduction to the twelve steps by making an unwanted advance in a very unwanted way. Smashed is astute in a great number of ways, not the least of which is its understanding that when a word is ruined for you, like the word “moist,” say, it’s ruined forever.
The tragedy of the movie, and in the lives of many who suffer like Kate, is that alcohol presents an impossible choice for her. “I just want to have a beer without it turning in to twenty,” she says, but that isn’t an option for her. There are indications that she’s a very good teacher: bright, energetic and caring but drinking undercuts all that. Her decision to quit alienates her drinking friends, especially Charlie who tells her coldly that AA is turning her into a bitch. He’s lost his friend at the party. She can’t win for losing, and the movie does an exemplary job of illustrating how seductive alcohol is, giving the feeling that, even though we know better, that if somebody needs a drink or two, it’s Kate.
This is an honest movie, it’s laid bare, it feels like it was made by people who know too well. Winstead ably and brilliantly creates someone we both like and don’t like. Too often in movies like this, we truly enjoy the addict more when they are wasted, as they become bores when sober, but Winstead, with help from the observant and sensitive script by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke, is more interesting when she is recovering, bravely withstanding cruel blows by the world until she can’t take it anymore. This is a keen portrait of alcoholism that knows that drinking strips the drunk of his or her humanity; it doesn’t enhance it. They don’t become more interesting, only one-note embarrassments. There is a scene right before Kate hits AA where she tries to convince a convenience store clerk to sell her wine after 2 a.m. that is a masterpiece of discomfort. Kate is decidedly less fun when drinking.
Ponsoldt lets his camera jerk and wobble, vaguely mirroring Kate’s drunkenness but also her precarious fragility when she’s recovering. More important, the documentary style allows Ponsoldt to tell the story clear-eyed and unrelentingly. And though there’s hope in the end, there’s also danger, two ideas that are offered every day for the recovering addict. Nor do Ponsoldt and Burke make Kate’s struggle easy. There are reasons to like Charlie and reasons to like the two of them together, but the movie never lets us forget that they won’t work unless they both change. When they were drinking buddies, they could forgive each other; when one is sober and the other isn’t, they only remind each other of their faults.
Smashed is a serious movie that’s both specific and universal. It asks you to empathize not forgive, to understand not condone. It made me feel lucky, not only because something like it exists, but because I don’t have to know the demons Kate does. That I can recognize some of my own demons in it as well is nothing short of remarkable.
Note: I wouldn’t feel right about publishing this review without disclosing the fact that I have worked, albeit briefly, with both James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke on separate projects. Our interactions were short, and it would be disingenuous to claim to be close with either and would, in fact, be flattered and shocked to find out if either remembers me, but a working relationship did exist. I do not believe that relationship informed my appreciation of their wonderful film but that isn’t for me to decide and I felt it ought to be disclosed.