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Park City – An old Hollywood staple, an alcoholic’s journey from a lost weekend through the days of wine and roses, is refitted to the modern generation in Smashed. More than anything an outstanding showcase for the dramatic talents of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, James Ponsoldt’s second feature, after the 2006 Sundance entry Off the Black, which was also about an alcoholic, by its nature includes the obligatory AA meetings, spills off the wagon and strains with loved ones. But its sharp writing and essential credibility make this small, intimate tale fresh and involving enough to warrant further festival exposure and limited theatrical release.
Stories about addiction and attempted recovery from it basically have two possible arcs; either way, one pretty much knows what to expect dramatically, so there is a special burden on the writers and actors to bring new insights and flavors to the table. The most significant and immediately visible twist is making the leading character a smart, attractive young woman who, with her music writer husband Charlie (Aaron Paul), likes to get loaded every night.
Worse than that, Kate Hannah (Winstead) swigs beer with her morning shower and takes a few swigs from a flask in her car before heading in to teach her first grade class in a Los Angeles school. One particularly hung-over morning, she pukes in front of her students and lies that she’s pregnant, a fiction that reaches the principal (Megan Mullally), who could not be more solicitous.
However, the vice principal, Dave (Nick Offerman), is wise to Kate’s ways and gently proposes that she check out his low-key AA group, which has kept him sober for nine years. Facing up to her problem, Kate joins in and particularly bonds with one warm woman (Octavia Spencer), who has replaced alcohol with baking.
It’s a different story at home, though, as Charlie still partakes of a college lifestyle, going to clubs nightly and hanging with buddies. Abstaining doesn’t register with him at all, causing a rift in outlooks that can’t help but send the marriage south. A subsequent school crisis causes Kate to head for the nearest bar, but then no one said the road wouldn’t be bumpy.
Onscreen throughout, Winstead presents an uncustomary image for a young actress these days: She appears virtually unadorned, seemingly without makeup and with a frumpy wardrobe, decidedly non-Hollywood. Kate is sexy and quick-witted and great fun when drinking, any college boy’s dream. But when the enormity of her problems hits her, she doesn’t hesitate to leave all that behind to become a responsible adult, a concept that blindsides her husband.
The role thus asks Winstead to run the full gamut, from game good-time girl and stimulating teacher to shell-shocked morning-after casualty and adamant survivor. She’s terrific at it all, far surpassing the promise she indicated in Death Proof and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.
Paul is fine in the more limited role of the fair-weather husband, while the standout supporting turn comes from Offerman, who is hilariously dry, droll and understated as a genuinely helpful colleague who cannot help but lapse into extreme inappropriateness.
Low-budget production values are strong, from cinematographer Tobias Datum’s sharp coverage of relatively unfamiliar near-downtown Los Angeles neighborhoods to an abundant soundtrack.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition)
Production: Super Crispy Entertainment, Jonathan Schwartz/Andrea Sperling
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Kyle Gallner, Mackenzie Davis, Bree Turner, Mary Kay Place, Octavia Spencer
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriters: James Ponsoldt, Susan Burke
Producers: Jonathan Schwartz, Andrea Sperling, Jennifer Cochis
Executive producers: Audrey Wilf, Zygi Wilf
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Linda Sena
Costume designer: Diaz Jacobs
Editor: Suzanne Spangler
Music: Eric D Johnson, Andy Cabic
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