Smashed (***)

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Any movie that touches on as deeply a personal experience as alcohol dependancy has to walk a very thin line in order to be successful. Too dark and moody a film will turn almost everyone off to the subject matter, while too light a tone will be insulting to those who have gone on the journey. ‘Smashed’ is a film that’s able to thread that needle very well, leading to a touching and oftentimes powerful motion picture. Of course, the main selling point and asset for James Ponsoldt’s flick is the nomination worthy lead performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She’s absolutely captivating here, doing work way above and beyond that of her already solid resume. She’s assisted quite well by the likes of Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, and Octavia Spencer, but nearly every scene has Winstead in it and you can’t take your eyes off of her during. The movie is far from perfect, but Ponsoldt has a solid handle on the material and never lets the issue become too theatrical. This is a character study about a functioning alcoholic and in that regard I think it’s a very successful flick. Time will tell if Winstead can get some Best Actress traction, but she definitely deserves consideration for this role.

When we first meet married couple Kate (Winstead) and Charlie (Paul) Hannah, they’re young, in love, and pretty much dependent on getting drunk in order to have a good time. For Charlie, he works from home as a writer so he’s somewhat limited in the damage that he can cause, but Kate is a grade school teacher and has to face the world with her hangovers. The first time that she realizes that she might have a problem starts off with throwing up one day in class. Her students ask her if she’s pregnant and she lies to them and says yes. Her boss Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally) is excited, but her colleague Dave Davies (Offerman) is suspicious and she confides in him that it’s a hangover. She’s sent home and promptly goes out and gets drunk at a bar, which leads to her giving the wrong person a ride home and eventually trying crack. For her, that’s the straw, and she sets out to try and stop drinking. Dave suggests AA meetings and she begins the road to recovery, armed with support from her sponsor Jenny (Spencer). However, Charlie’s inability to change could be a problem for her and just because Kate’s sober now doesn’t mean that her lies won’t have consequences. The plot is relatively straightforward, but it’s the acting that elevates this movie.

In a presumed weak year for Best Actress like this one, Mary Elizabeth Winstead should be in serious contention for an Academy award nomination. Her work here is easily among the 5 best performances that I’ve seen an actress give so far in 2012. She hits all the right notes and never falls victim to the traps that taking this sort of role accompanies. You always buy her as a complex individual struggling with a disease, not just some immature girl who needs to learn a lesson and grow up. Winstead is in almost every single scene and you literally can’t take your eyes off of her. She gets you invested in her character and you spend the second half of the flick on the edge of your seat hoping she doesn’t relapse. There’s a lot of good things about this movie, but she’s 100% the best thing and I can’t say enough about her. Aaron Paul is pretty good as well, even if his character sometimes serves the plot more than organically interacts with Kate. Charlie’s not a bad guy, and Paul plays him in the proper way. Octavia Spencer is very solid, even if she doesn’t have too much to do overall. For me, the best supporting turn is from Nick Offerman, who threatens to steal some of his scenes, a confession in a car in particular which absolutely brings down the house. Offerman won’t get noticed for Best Supporting Actor, but I hope at least one precursor notices him. Megan Mullally plays things straight here, and there’s small parts for the likes of Mary Kay Place as Kate’s mom and Kyle Gallner as Charlie’s brother well. Of course, it all comes back to Winstead though, and deservedly so.

James Ponsoldt is a very solid filmmaker, but one who knows how to maximize the power of his art. Instead of stylizing his direction or the script he co-wrote with Susan Burke, he just points the camera at his cast, gets in close, and lets them work their magic. Ponsoldt paces things quite well and never lets things descend into melodrama or come off as manipulative. His direction isn’t flashy, but there’s confidence there. The script he and Burke wrote is a bit thin, but the actors and actresses consistently elevate the material. I’m eager to see what Ponsoldt has in store for us next, as he’s a pretty talented up and coming director if he can consistently get this type of work from his cast.

Overall, ‘Smashed’ is a good movie made better by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. I think her chances of a Best Actress nomination aren’t bad at all, but quality of work is rarely the deciding factor in this sort of thing. Regardless, I can easily recommend this film and think it’s the type of indie awards hopeful that deserves your attention. It isn’t a particularly big flick, but it’s a very good one.

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When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of Indiewire's Criticwire Network as well as the Internet Film Critics Association.