Hipsters have problems too. In this low-budget, indie-styled retread of Days of Wine and Roses, we meet Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an adorably funky second-grade teacher who is just beginning the descent from functional alcoholism into full-blown alcoholic. Most nights she goes out to clubs with her part-time music journalist husband (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) and the two get hammered together then fall into bed and have drunken sex. But lately, Kate has been waking up to urine-covered sheets, vicious hangovers, and a class full of kids who think her vomiting in class is a sign of pregnancy (this comes back to haunt her later). Kate finally realizes her life is careening out of control when she wakes up under an overpass after trying crack for the first time. At the gentle urging of the school's vice principal (a humorously stiff Nick Offerman), who has an addiction problem himself and knows the signs, Kate begins to attend AA meetings, where she picks the no-nonsense Jenny (fiery Octavia Spencer) as her sponsor.
Despite the youth of its characters and writer-director James Ponsoldt's low-key, offbeat tone, Smashed, at first, follows the same path that so many addiction-then-recovery dramas have traveled before it. Where is deviates from cliché, however, is in its view that the 12 steps can be a lot harder to navigate than the initial decision to seek help. Kate's biggest impediment to sobriety isn't her own willpower, it's her husband Charlie. Having never touched the bottom the way his wife has, Charlie accepts Kate's decision to get clean but sees no need to change his own habits. Inevitably, their relationship begins to drift — not because their love was false, but because the routine between them has changed for one and not the other. This ends up being only one of the many challenges Kate encounters, as sobriety puts her face-to-face with all the problems her alcoholism let her ignore.
Unfortunately, as promising a narrative angle as this is, Ponsoldt and his co-writer Susan Burke don't go far or deep enough. Kate's realization that getting on the wagon isn't always as life-affirming and self-actualizing as many movies would have you believe is only hinted at rather than explored. As a result, Smashed, like the movies it seems to be refuting, ends up following the same old lose job-give up-recuperate plot line we've seen so many times before. And while Ponsoldt is refreshingly nonjudgmental when it comes to his characters and willing to inject offbeat instances of embarrassment, there isn't enough dramatic tension or emotional introspection for Kate and Charlie to fully reveal themselves. The two are mostly defined by their addictions, leaving the actors to fill in the gaps.
Luckily Paul and Winstead are up to the task, letting us see the hairline fissures that grow between them while keeping their performances defiantly naturalistic. As Charlie, Paul is given the least to work with, but there's an undeniable fire in his eyes and a deep affection for Kate that's both sad and authentic. Winstead, on the other hand, is in almost every frame of the film. Though she's been in a few big studio projects —Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the remake of The Thing — no one has seemed to find the right role for her talents. Mostly she's registered as a blank. Here, she is warm and intelligent, showing us Kate's innate decency even when her behavior becomes unforgivably appalling. What stands out in particular is Winstead's decision to play down Kate's drunkeness, reminding us that not every boozer becomes a sloppy, slurring mess. Only in a heart-breaking scene of relapse does she finally cut loose, and it's a scene that sticks with you. Compare that with Denzel Washington's scenery-chewing in Flight and the contrast in choices couldn't be starker. Unlike his distant and unknowable Whip Whitaker, Kate is engaging because Winstead lets us see the promise in her character, the hunger to be more than her addiction. It's a good choice that helps to overcome the script's many shortcomings, most notably its abrupt and tidy conclusion.
In the end, Smashed is a modest film that, thankfully, never wallows in earnestness and suffering. But it does tend to trade passion for quirk and naked emotion for smudgy restraint. It has that jangly soundtracked, Sundance smell about it, never imposing enough style or taking enough risks to fully distinguish itself, but offering just enough of a unique voice to get by.