Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally
Rated: R, for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use
Runtime: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Bottom line: Outstanding drama/comedy from a local talent
“Smashed” is an example of many things I love about independent film.
It’s made by a young, promising director, James Ponsoldt, from Athens.
It features a handful of stars willing to take on what are for them small roles, but for the film makes the difference between being seen and not being seen.
The movie takes on a difficult topic — alcoholism — from a fresh perspective, and while it offers truths, it doesn’t beat us over the head with a message.
Clocking in at less than 85 minutes, there isn’t a wasted moment (pun intended).
All of this gives the film an immediacy one rarely finds at the multiplex.
“Smashed” centers around Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul), who have a happy marriage, as long as they’re drunk.
They drink. A lot. And while it seems casual initially, it doesn’t take long to see the destructive side of their drinking.
The first morning we meet Kate, she wakes up to discover she has wet the bed. This apparently happens regularly. She then downs a beer in the shower. Before getting out of her car at work, she takes a few swigs of whiskey from a flask.
Then she goes into work: teaching elementary school. While teaching class, Kate vomits, then lies to her students, saying she is sick because she is pregnant.
That’s a good morning compared to the few that follow. As Kate puts it, things are going from embarrassing to dangerous.
Kate is an alcoholic in a steady downward spiral, no question.
We see it, and soon after the opening credits, Kate begins to recognize it. The movie’s twist on the alcoholism drama is that the people closest to Kate do not see it.
Charlie, a writer with few responsibilities, likes their lifestyle. Kate’s mother (Mary Kay Place) is an alcoholic in denial herself, and when Kate tells her she is sober, her mother is more worried about how it might affect Charlie.
Kate’s principal (Megan Mullally) believes the pregnancy story and begins giving Kate extraordinary leeway, which enables her drinking.
Soon, though, Kate confides in a colleague (Nick Offerman), who invites her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. This sets Kate on the path to sobriety, but that becomes merely the beginning of her problems as her desire to clean up impacts every relationship in her life.
The film staggers a line between terrifying and funny.
Drunk from partying with Charlie at a karaoke bar, Kate gives a ride to a girl stranded at the bar. The girl talks Kate into trying crack. Next thing she knows, Kate wakes up the following morning in the middle of a parking lot.
The situation is horrific, but it’s also rather absurd and, therefore, oddly funny. At least, Winstead and Ponsoldt find the unexpected humor in the situation.
The movie continues to lace the drama with comedy, until the story reaches an undeniably dramatic pitch, but even then the tone is surprising.
True independent films don’t have the luxury of a big budget, which means they can’t rely on special effects, shooting in high profile locations or other types of visual spectacle. Indie films are measured by the quality of their writing and acting, and whether they offer a unique voice.
“Smashed” succeeds in all of those categories.
The role is a huge career leap for Winstead, who will now earn consideration for weightier dramatic roles. She has worked her way into the lead actress category, but never has she had the opportunity to showcase her surprisingly strong acting chops.
It is a tremendous boost for Ponsoldt’s career, too. He is currently in post-production on a film titled “The Spectacular Now” (shot in Athens), with a cast that’s even more impressive than the one he had for “Smashed.”
It’s incredibly gratifying to watch one of Northeast Georgia’s own building a career based on talent and quality work.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.