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Reel Women: ‘Smashed’

Smashed
Sony Pictures Classics

In the new indie drama ‘Smashed,’ Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays an alcoholic school teacher trying to get sober while struggling with marriage to her similarly booze-ridden husband. The film, out now in limited release, is a heart-wrenching portrait of addiction and salvation.

Alcoholism is a disease — as members of Alcoholics Anonymous often say, addiction is the only disease you can be mad at someone for having. And even more dangerous than the addiction itself, perhaps, is the act of enabling. Two alcoholics are worse than one, both giving permission to the other to continue digging the hole they share, but what happens when a little ray of light shines through and offers the chance for hope and salvation? And what happens when only one of those people takes the opportunity?

In ‘Smashed,’ Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives the performance of her career (so far) as Kate, a school teacher struggling with alcohol addiction, who doesn’t realize she needs help until she vomits in front of a classroom full of kids and uses pregnancy as an excuse. Her relationship with her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) is built on addiction, though neither of them seems to know it because they’re both so constantly hammered that they never have a moment of clarity that doesn’t involve the words, “Let’s have a drink.” Drinking is a fun shared hobby for the pair, but it’s also the foundation for their marriage, and without it, what else is left? Do they really love each other, or is it just the sort of convenient fondness an addict might have for their dealer? There’s is a mutually parasitic love, in which the addict feeds on the addict in circles at the bottom of the bottle until there is nothing left.

As someone who has experienced the ravaging effects of alcoholism firsthand via family and loved ones, ‘Smashed’ is a film that hits home with ferocity. It’s a quiet little indie film that utilizes subtle direction to invoke the dizzying feeling of drunkenness, but it’s Winstead’s performance that reaches directly into your gut and twists with precision. The way she manipulates her voice when drunk almost sounds monstrous and inhuman — it’s startlingly authentic. There is no rationality or reason when an alcoholic is firing on all cylinders. There is nothing left of the person you know or once knew. You can’t reason with them by saying things like, “If you loved me, you’d quit” because they have to love themselves — but just as you hardly recognize them anymore, they hardly recognize themselves either. The addiction takes over and the addiction does what it wants. It’s pure, irrational Id, encompassing their lives and driving them to do things like pee on gas station floors or smoke crack when a stranger offers it.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking moments come when Kate attempts to have sex with her husband. The first time, he’s passing out in their bed and she straddles him, grinding in the most asexual manner. The second time, in the middle of an argument, she relents and then appeals to him sexually, but it’s a desperate ploy for affection. Again, there is no rationality here — just a swirling vortex of alcohol and sickness. It’s more than what we see when we pity a drunk girl falling down at a party or a guy throwing up in the yard. This is what we think of when someone’s gone too far with booze. Now imagine a person who is like that for at least 80% of their day, every single day. Imagine two people, living together like that, every single day. And they call it love.

When Kate attempts to get sober, she allows Charlie to continue drinking. She may be on the right track, but her alcoholic habits continue to cloud her vision. Why should she force her husband to get sober when it’s her that woke up in an alley after smoking crack with homeless people? Charlie isn’t the one making these mistakes — she is. An interesting thing happens when one person gets sober and the other one doesn’t — the sober person changes. They become someone unrecognizable to the addict, which is perhaps the most telling problem between Kate and Charlie — they’ve clearly never known each other as sober human beings. So when Kate gets her act together, Charlie feels alienated and alone, like he’s been abandoned and left behind.

But Kate has her own host of new problems to deal with — things she never had to deal with before because the alcohol allowed her to ignore real life. While being sober opens up a world of possibility, it also opens the door to responsibility, and someone like Kate isn’t equipped with the skills necessary to navigate stress. Getting sober is the easy part, they say, it’s staying sober that’s hard, and there is nothing — I assure you, from personal experience — that’s more upsetting than an addict relapsing. It takes hitting rock bottom to want to make a change, but a relapse is so much worse than the addiction that came before it. The addiction, as Kate explains while bemoaning AA slogans, waits for you, and when you’re ready, it will always be there. But instead of welcoming you back with open, loving arms, it welcomes you back like the eye of a storm, ravaging everything in your life with twice the force and fury the second time around.

‘Smashed’ may only be a movie, but it’s one with a pounding heart that beats from a place that is genuine and honest — so honest, that it hurts to watch. Winstead, like the alcoholic she portrays, becomes an entirely different person, making her performance doubly impressive given that she must essentially play two roles — sober Kate and addict Kate — and be equally convincing as both. A film like this may be overlooked in awards season, but I don’t think it matters — what matters with a movie that speaks to the human experience in such a specific way as this is that it is seen and appreciated, but moreover, that there are those who can and will strongly identify with it, and hopefully it speaks to them the way it spoke to me. And no trophy is going to mean anything to those people.

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