“I don’t know if I’m an alcoholic, really,” Kate Hannah says at her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, “I just drink. I drink a lot. And I’ve always drank a lot, everyone I know drinks a lot, so I never really thought it was a problem. But lately it kinda seems like it is.” This is the crux of James Ponsoldt’s acute, concise, heartfelt film, co-written with Susan Burke, herself a recovering alcoholic. Smashed understands that alcoholism isn’t always the sad, somber burden that the movies tend to portray it as; oftentimes it’s actually a lot of fun, and it’s only when the physical and psychological toll of a night’s bacchanalian revelry becomes too great to shoulder in the morning — when the drink and its repercussions can no longer be measured independent of one another — that the alcoholic is compelled to admit his or her problem.
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an elementary school teacher, dedicated and passionate about her job, who nonetheless spends more than just Friday night carousing about the local bars with her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) and their friends. She is what you might call a functioning alcoholic; she gets to work on time every day, but not without finishing last night’s beer in the shower and taking a swig of whiskey from the flask she keeps in her car before heading in to the classroom. Kate is able to get by like this just fine, until one day the hair of the dog proves a little too much and she suddenly, uncontrollably vomits in the middle of class. Embarrassed and stunned, Kate impulsively says “Yes” when her young students ask if she’s pregnant, relieved that she doesn’t have to explain what a hangover is. Afraid to admit that she’s been drinking, Kate plays along when Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally) congratulates her on her pregnancy and sends her home early to rest.
In celebration of her impromptu early dismissal, Kate heads out to the bar for drinks and karaoke with Charlie and his friends. Perhaps feeling remorse for her unprofessional episode at work earlier, she doesn’t stay long, insisting that she has work to do and should head home. Outside, however, she is stopped by a girl (Mackenzie Davis) who talks Kate into giving her a ride home. “Home” turns out to be nothing more than a fire and some boxes in the seedy part of town, and on the drive there she convinces the tipsy Kate to take a hit from her crack pipe. When Kate wakes up the next morning on the ground, miles away from her car and with no recollection of how she got there, she decides that it may be time to grow up and slow down.
Charlie keeps pace with Kate, but unlike Kate, he doesn’t wet the bed, start drinking first thing in the morning, or end up on the other end of town doing drugs with homeless strangers; so when Kate tells him that she thinks she needs to stop drinking (which she does with a pool cue in one hand and a beer in the other), Charlie doesn’t understand why she can’t keep drinking and simply stop everything else. “The drinking is what leads to everything stupid that I do,” she insists, but for Charlie, who has suffered fewer consequences for his choices than Kate has, it doesn’t compute. Charlie seems to think that as long as they drink at home, where there aren’t any intruding wayward souls to tempt Kate into transgressing, then she will be in the clear. But when he passes out before she’s ready to call it a night, Kate rides her bike to the local store for more booze. When the clerk refuses to break the rules and sell her alcohol after 2am, Kate becomes petulant. First she loses control of her temper, then she loses control of her bladder, urinating on the floor when she is unable to make it to the bathroom in time. The clerk is incensed; when Kate steals a bottle of wine on her way out, he doesn’t go after her, he’s simply relieved to have her out of the store.
Blacking out and waking up on the side of the road twice in one weekend is apparently the limit for Kate, so when she returns to work the next week and Dave (Nick Offerman), the assistant principal, confides that he’s nine years sober, she takes heed. Dave — who saw Kate drinking in the parking lot the morning she threw up in class — offers to bring her to a meeting. There, Kate meets Jenny (Octavia Spencer), an older woman whose honesty and candor appeals to Kate. “All that dumb shit happened,” Jenny assures her, “so now I’m glad it’s at least entertaining.” Jenny becomes Kate’s sponsor, giving her life advice and perspective.
For Kate, the biggest asset is having someone who understands that she does have a problem that needs to be addressed and handled. Charlie wants to be supportive; he loves Kate but he doesn’t understand why she needs AA. Her estranged mother Rochelle (Mary Kay Place) is no help either; dismissive of her accomplishments and skeptical of her sobriety, Rochelle seems fundamentally unable to be happy for Kate and the new path she is is carving for herself with AA, an organization that Rochelle blames for brainwashing Kate’s father and convincing him to abandon their family.
It’s to the film’s credit, however, that there is no villain, no diabolical enabler that is tempting Kate to fail. Instead, Ponsoldt and Burke are compassionate to all their characters, portraying Kate’s friends and family as well meaning but misguided. Rochelle loves her daughter, but remains so bitter about her husband’s need to leave a toxic relationship that she can’t help but see Kate’s pride for her success in AA as a slap in the face. Charlie meanwhile continues to drink; he has no malice toward Kate or her decision, he is just unable or unwilling to accept how his actions may affect Kate’s. Charlie works from home and comes from a family that is willing and able to support him emotionally and financially; he has not fought for his career, for his house, for his comfort the way that Kate has, and he has no frame of reference to understand how tenuous Kate’s self control truly is. Frustrated that he has lost his best drinking buddy, he lashes out at Kate, calling her “a brainwashed bitch,” and taking out his insecurities over their lost intimacy on her in the most counterproductive fashion. As sympathetic as he tries to be, Charlie is resentful that he is being excluded from Kate’s life, not realizing that he must change with Kate in order to remain with her. “Love is the easy part,” Kate tells him, “it’s the rest of this shit that’s hard.”
As Kate, Winstead is fantastic; she plays drunk without any affectation or buffoonery, and her conviction and fortitude are never overplayed. She is neither a hero nor a victim; instead, she is a very smart, very real person who has reached the point at which she can no longer shirk responsibility for her actions. Sober for the first time since she was in high school, Kate must go through the arduous task of rediscovering herself, and Winstead nails the mix of surprise and humility, of acceptance and of resolve that comes from honestly assessing your faults and shamelessly taking the steps to improve them. “Now that I’m not drinking,” she explains, “I have all these other problems I have to deal with.”
Ultimately, Smashed isn’t about alcoholism as much as it is about pinpointing your preferred iteration of yourself and finding the necessary support to help manifest it. Rather than make a facile ode to AA, Ponsoldt and Burke — with the help of a strong ensemble cast — have instead explored the nature of support and altruism, as well as their evil twins projection and denial. Kate’s family tries to help her by assuring her she doesn’t have a problem, but she’s smart enough to know better; it’s only once she admits her failings and aligns herself with people who care enough to hold her accountable that she is able to make positive change. Jenny assures Kate, “We all carry shit in our heads that doesn’t make any sense,” lies and vices that we continue to indulge against our better judgment, but “at least alcoholics have the tools to work through it.” The choices Kate must make are difficult, for both her and the people she loves, but she’s been down far enough to know the value of looking up.