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Don’t be smashed while watching Ponsoldt’s Smashed
Heartbreak and alcoholism are placed in front of a crystal-clear lens in James Ponsoldt’s Smashed. All too real, Smashed follows Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s increasingly sober Kate as she comes to terms with her alcoholism at a pace that mirrors the arduous 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program in which she enlists. Weaving together elements of a rom-com with those of a serious drama, the film operates on the wave of recent years’ sadcore comedies like 50/50 and Funny People. This fresh, composed film will have viewers reconvening with their own lives as they amble out of the cinema, saying, “Damn, I’m glad that’s not me.”
The story revolves around Kate, an elementary school teacher who realizes her alcoholic tendencies through a series of embarrassments. Only when her co worker, played by the fantastically awkward Nick Offerman, proposes Alcoholics Anonymous as an outlet does Kate try to get better. From here, the sobering-up Kate wholly destroys her life.
Throughout Smashed, the audience is given short, linked vignettes of drunken humor, elementary school chatter, and married-couple hostility. But the film’s framework brings us closer than just a third-person onlooker. Intoxication—be it by alcohol, depression, or even crack—is itself characterized by the visuals. Viewers can feel the deep worry of Kate’s bad news for her boss by the sound of her breath and the slow swaying of the camera. Her shameful one-night stand with the crack pipe shows itself in the warm glimmer of a back alley, quickly cutting in and out of our protagonists’s spectacularly college-grad ramble. The audience’s view is that of someone who is there with Kate, but also of Kate herself.
Kate’s husband Charlie, played evocatively by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, deepens the overwhelming despair of the film as his character creates an unfortunate crux. Constant drunkenness and an uncanny inability to support his wife pound out a miserable outcome for Charlie.
This same juncture induces a somewhat blunt yet imperative resolution for Kate. Instead of the deterioration of their relationship or Kate losing her job over admitting a drawn-out lie, truly tragic scenes of her waking up on a sidewalk, Donnie Darko-style, monopolize the emotions of the audience. While Charlie is a central figure, and we do feel sorry for him, there exists a strain of ambiguity towards his presence. He does not come around until it’s too late, and by that time, we’ve become a part of Kate’s struggle.
Awkward lighting and angles aid the edgy humor that makes a few surprise appearances throughout the film. During a scene in which Kate’s coworker proclaims his lust for her with poorly-chosen words like “moist,” all we’re given is a car light to see the disgust and shock on Kate’s face. Lighting also does the job of opposing the joy of sobriety over the deep depression of alcoholism: Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are well lit; bar scenes are dark and dingy. The film has an unshaken message, but it handles properly the grey areas of real life.
Reality’s teeth, bright and blackout drunk, come together in the form of Smashed’s beautiful and subtle tale of sobriety and failed love. Biting drama comes from Kate’s critical onlookers, rather than from Kate herself. The camera’s focus on her big, brown eyes tends to put the audience in Kate’s shoes, moving constantly but not always with direction. Bringing these impeccably crafted elements together, Smashed succeeds, like a truly great film, in its ability to effectively communicate true anguish in the moment and produce a lingering sense of unease afterwards.