Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with some more Sundance coverage. Next up is a flick called Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul (bitch!) as a fun-loving young couple (she’s a teacher, he’s some kind of music blogger who works from home) who like to paaarrr-tay.
And by paaarrr-tay, I mean they like to get shitfaced-drunk a lot. They’re content, even happy, but as we start the story Winstead’s character is spiraling out of control; at the point where just having fun is morphing into serious addiction. Unlike her quasi-slacker hubby, she has a little more responsibility in her life, so when she goes out and gets fucked up she can’t just sleep it off the next day. She has to go teach elementary school.
Her alcoholism becomes a problem forcing her into a web of lies and some really dangerous lost nights. She hits rock bottom and ends up trying out sobriety at the behest of co-worker played by Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson himself), goes to meetings, the whole nine yards.
It’s a very after school special premise, but it’s handled with surprising care by co-writers Susan Burke and James Ponsoldt (who also directed) and with great complexity by Winstead and Paul. They’re fantastic in the movie and it’s a damn good thing they are, too, because if they weren’t then this premise could have been unbearable.
I want to give this movie an award just because it managed to be about getting sober without once becoming preachy. I don’t understand how they pulled that off, but they did.
The secret must be in how they handled the relationship between Winstead and Paul. She doesn’t get sober and then force him to quit drinking. She doesn’t judge him and he’s not resentful of her sobriety. Unfortunately that’s not exactly sustainable, but I like that they went that route instead of the typical instant horrible split you see in movies like this.
Winstead is compassionate and Paul is supportive, but both of their characters have a limit to how compassionate or supportive they can be. It becomes quite clear that Paul is easygoing, but doesn’t fully understand the reasons behind Winstead’s decision to go sober and it’s that misunderstanding that causes the big drama between them.
It’s a serious premise, but there’s a lot of humor to the movie, too. Most of that comes in to play at the AA meetings, which is where the movie needs it the most. Octavia Spencer plays Jenny, the lady who becomes Winstead’s sponsor. She’s a foul-mouthed baker that always shoots straight. I kind of wish there was more of her in the movie because every time she was on screen there was a laugh.
Speaking of laughs, there’s also some raunchy humor, particularly surrounding a scene between Nick Offerman and Winstead in a car, that is probably the funniest thing I’ve seen at Sundance. And it’s almost all sold by Offerman’s delivery and Winstead’s “did I just hear that?” silent reaction.
I gotta hand it to Winstead, too. She goes out on a limb in this movie. Playing a fun-drunk is dangerous territory. Over-the-top and just right are separated by by a line so thin it’s damn near invisible. She rides that line and does step over it a few times, but it seemed to me that when she did that it was a conscious decision made at strategic points in the story where you really needed the audience to cringe at her actions. She delivers a very believable and vulnerable performance and wasn’t afraid to let the audience see her at her worst, physically or emotionally.
Paul also deserves some credit for not making his character feel like the villain. The pair really do feel like husband and wife here and even when the fighting does come into play you never lose sight of the love they have for each other. Any cruelty between them is unconscious and immediately regretted.
Smashed is a solid drama that’s just light enough to keep it from being a chore to watch, but has a lot to say about the daily struggle of trying to become a better person. It was a pleasant surprise for me at the fest this year.