While presenting the trials and tribulations of an alcoholic schoolteacher, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), taking her first steps toward sobriety, Smashed touches on the awkward perversity that often comes from seemingly pure emotions and intentions, and turns a noticeable, if slightly analytical, eye toward the selfish hurt and narcissistic projections inflicted by the perceived moral hierarchy against recovering addicts. Various characters in director James Ponsoldt’s menagerie, including Kate’s well-meaning boss, Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally), and her recovering-alcoholic co-worker, Dave (Nick Offerman), are introduced as selfless friends, though they become figures of bitterness and misunderstanding who ultimately hinder the good Kate is attempting to do with her life.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Susan Burke, Ponsoldt has crafted a well meaning, intermittently fascinating character study, told with an unfettered understanding of the total change that’s often called for in the wake of recovery from addiction. And, at least initially, Ponsoldt’s understanding also extends to the film’s supporting characters. He doesn’t get too judgmental when, for instance, Dave admits to Kate his crush on her, only to then underline the confession with an explosive and crude expression of lust. The same goes for Barnes’s desperate, largely obnoxious obsession with Kate following her half-cocked fabrication of being with child, following an embarrassing incident wherein Kate, battling a titanic hangover, vomits in front of her pre-adolescent students. There’s a love for these perceived lost causes that starts out strong but dissipates about halfway through, and the genuine interest in the wildness and variety of individuals that make up communities gets lost as Kate recovers.
Despite this early interest in community, the story eventually points toward the alienation and isolation that Kate must suffer. Octavia Spencer, with her generous warmth and clear self-possession, appears not long into the film as Jenny, Kate’s sponsor, and she in essence becomes the genuine matriarchal presence to Barnes’s superficial overbearingness. With the exception of Jenny, however, all of the film’s characters seem plotted to make Kate into a martyr: Barnes, embarrassed and hurt, makes Kate’s termination a long-suffering ordeal; Kate’s husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), isn’t entirely understanding of recovery and can be hurtful or careless without knowing it; and Dave, following his crass confession, mutates from a helpful, friendly guide for Kate to a lonely loser who’s more worthy of her pity than respect.
The filmmakers’ attitude toward Kate is chiefly as a victim, but Winstead’s admirable performance suggests so much more than that. Made gaunt by makeup (or perhaps lack thereof), Winstead summons the ugliness of alcoholism while also perfectly pitching Kate’s inebriated hours between jubilance, ignorance, and frenzy. Sadly, the script is less interested in highlighting the seduction of alcohol, the perceived personal freedom it provides and the sense of camaraderie and company it promises, than it is in the familiar trajectory of the drama of recovery. It makes Kate’s eventual lapse back into alcoholism feel rehearsed, inevitable, and less about any weakness in the woman than the inherent, passive-aggressive awfulness of society at large.
Even Jenny seems like an ignorable presence, and the script puts needless stress on Kate’s disintegrating marriage to Charlie. Paul’s performance is especially remarkable for making the few moments we get with Charlie before Kate’s climactic relapse potent, but the character is underwritten, seemingly only there to be yet another blockade on Kate’s road to sobriety. Indeed, the uniformly brilliant cast nearly masks the truth that Smashed offers a cheap and easy sort of inspiration in lieu of genuine inquiry into what it takes to reenter society after years of substance abuse. Rather than mine the intricacies of personal flaws and unexpected graces inherent in those who make up the communities it depicts, the film takes a firmly cynical view of society that makes all Kate’s hardships seem preordained and therefore less impactful and more ubiquitous. Thus, Kate’s triumphs, and those of the unique individuals that surround her, feel more like defeats against the essential ills of society and not against something within themselves.