You probably know people like this. A couple meets in college, where everybody is partying all the time. They fall in love, get married, and continue to party together, even after they’re out of college and start working. And somewhere, sometime, they cross over that fuzzy boundary between social drinking and alcoholism. Except it takes them a while to realize it. And they don’t awaken to it on the same schedule.
“Smashed” won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year for a reason: it makes an impact. The characters are realistic and empathetic. Both the writing and directing (by young newcomer James Ponsoldt) are fresh and original. The subject matter speaks to a lot of people on a lot of different levels. But its problem is that it’s mostly a downer. Even the silver lining is dim at the end.
Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) loves her job teaching elementary school. She’s energetic and resourceful with the kids. Her principal supports her. She gets along well with the other teachers. But her drinking habits when she gets home are starting to spill over (pun intended) to her workplace. There she is in the parking lot in the morning, taking a “hit” from a flask concealed in the glove department before she goes in the classroom. Hair of the dog that bit you and all that. One day, she’s in the middle of an animated teaching episode with her kids when she suddenly starts puking. She misses the trash can. And there she is, on her hands and knees in front of all of them, embarrassed, and not really ready with a convenient excuse. And so when one of them asks her if she’s pregnant (like her Momma), she says ‘Yes.”
Well, that lie leads to others. Word gets around to the other teachers, who throw her a baby shower (she pretends to be ecstatic). Her principal gives her time off to deal with her “morning sickness,” which unfortunately only provides more opportunity for Kate to be self-indulgent. Her loving husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), is right there with her, because he works at home, sometimes---it appears his parents still support him, and he argues with her, successfully, that they shouldn’t be ashamed of accepting that generosity just because her Mom isn’t able to help.
Here’s where the movie sort of rigidly adheres to the Alcoholics Anonymous mindset. Kate has to “hit rock bottom” (as in waking up a couple of times in remote places where she had no idea how she got there) before she finally decides she needs help. One of the other teachers at school introduces her to “the program” that he says saved his life (the fact that he later turns out to be a creep only means he isn’t right about everything).
Once in the group, Kate finds a tremendously supportive sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer), and seems to be making great progress, but it’s never easy. At school, they find out she lied about the pregnancy, and she loses her job “because she can no longer be trusted.” At home, her husband isn’t ready to quit drinking, and finds it a disappointment that she’s no longer willing to have fun with him. She, for her part, no longer finds him so amusing and charming when he’s sloshed, since she is now completely sober. She finds another job but it pays less. She tries to “work through the steps” in the famous 12-step program, but she finds that “making amends” and “being completely honest” aren’t as easy as they sound, either. Trying to reconcile with her estranged mother doesn’t work well, for instance, because her mother is still a heavy drinker (it’s not surprising that the predisposition toward alcoholism runs in the family).
Can anybody find happiness here? Well, maybe, but it’s a qualified kind of grim and determined clean and sober that leaves broken relationships and unretractable pronouncements in its wake. There are dull moments when complete sobriety isn’t very appealing, either. But sometimes it’s the better of bad choices.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas