Films about alcoholics tend to follow a familiar story arc. Drunk protagonist hits bottom, decides to sober up, and attends AA meetings. Sobriety works for awhile, until some personal disaster causes the alcoholic to fall off the wagon. Then they drop further into substance abuse, or climb back into permanent health. Expect much drunken lurching around, screaming fights with loved ones, intense moments with enablers and at least one sequence set at a 12-step meeting.
“Smashed” doesn’t exactly break away from this template, but has one key thing that sets it apart from other films of its ilk: a staggeringly fine performance by Rocky Mount native Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a woman dealing with her addictive behavior.
Winstead stars as Kate, a married elementary school teacher and major drunk whose life begins to fall apart when, hungover, she vomits in front of her class and claims it’s because she’s pregnant (she’s not). From there it’s onto smoking crack with another drunk she drives home after a night at a bar, and desperately asking a convenience store clerk to sell her a bottle of wine at an hour when he’s not legally allowed to. When he refuses, she urinates on the floor when she can’t find a bathroom, and steals the bottle.
Kate’s family relationships don’t help matters. Husband Charlie (“Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul) is just another alcoholic in denial, and mom Rochelle (veteran Mary Kay Place) swills Bloody Mary’s as if they were soda pop. But thanks to the vice principal at her school (Nick Offerman) who admits he once abused alcohol and drugs, Kate stops drinking, joins AA, and finds a sponsor (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer).
From here on out, “Smashed” takes a familiar trajectory. Kate stays sober for awhile, but then tragedy hits and she starts drinking again. Cut to one year later, and she’s divorced, has a new job, and is fully committed to sobriety.
All this would be so much predictable yadda yadda – you’ve seen it in films like “The Days of Wine and Roses” - if it weren’t for Winstead’s courageous performance. Probably best known for starring in such horror schlockers as “Final Destination 3,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “The Thing,” Winstead shows the kind of acting chops you’d never expect from her previous work. Ranging from demure to sexy, crazily drunk to bitterly hungover, Winstead’s performance is nothing less than top-of-the-line and scarily believable. It’s the kind of acting turn that would earn Oscar notice – if she weren’t in the type of small indie film that will pass through theaters like a ship in the night. But make no mistake. Winstead’s work elevates what under normal circumstances would be nothing more than a Lifetime movie of the week into something with much more depth and humanity. Attention must be paid.