Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul get ‘Smashed’.
(Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Alcoholism can be a truly frightening thing. In an instant someone can become a completely different person, doing things they never thought capable of doing just to satisfy the need for one more drink. Of course, the best thing any alcoholic can do is sober up and get their life back on track. But what do you do, if after all that work to kick the booze, your life becomes more difficult than you could ever anticipate? This is the hard question at the heart of Smashed. A poignant look at the true cost of overcoming addiction, Smashed is a funny, wonderfully acted film that will definitely pull on heartstrings.

Charlie and Kate and like to have fun. A lot of fun. Unfortunately, it means they’re drunk. Really drunk. They’re young, married, and completely in love. Everything is perfect…as long as the party keeps going. Unfortunately every party comes to an end, and Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) learns that the hard way. Kate suffers through a few embarrassing and dangerous incidents due to her drinking that not only threaten her job as a schoolteacher, but put her in actual physical danger. When Charlie (Aaron Paul) tries to laugh it off, Kate realizes that she has a problem. Gradually and with the support of her work colleague Dave Davies (Nick Offerman) and sponsor Jenny (Octavia Spencer) she sobers up through AA. The real work begins when, despite all of the love they share, Charlie and Kate’s marriage begins to dissolve as their lifestyles begin to diverge radically. Again, Kate has to learn the hard way that giving up alcohol is in no way the hardest thing she’ll have to endure.

Smashed is a wonderful film, propelled almost entirely by the strength of its acting. The story of addiction and recovery is certainly nothing audiences haven’t seen before, but the incredibly moving portrayal by Winstead will scorch this one into the audiences’ memory. To use an old cliché, she’s a tour-de-force. She gravitates from scene-to-scene, completely believable whether an adorably goofy drunk or a repentant addict struggling with recovery. One climactic scene in particular is as jarring as an act of physical violence, it seers with visceral intensity. It’s tremendously captivating.

It’s not just Winstead who buttresses the show, though. Every member of the cast is pitch-perfect. Breaking Bad favorite Aaron Paul is a real delight to see on the big screen. While his performance may echo his television persona slightly, it lends itself to the character in a big way. Here’s a clearly flawed individual, but Paul gives him a sincerity that makes him impossible to dislike. The dissolution of the once strong love between the characters is made all the more tragic by the affection he generates. The supporting caste is entirely stellar as well. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer is wonderful as Jenny, a world-weary voice of experience that helps guide Kate through the ins-and-outs of recovery. She’s only in a few scenes, but she leaves her mark. The same goes for both Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally as well, who both do a superb job embracing the nuances of their roles. The supporting characters are used deliberately, and it really works in the favor of the narrative. The scenes shared between Kate and the other characters are always compelling, but they never overpower her as the focus. They contribute, rather than detract.

All that praise aside, Smashed may not appeal to everyone. Some audiences won’t dig the handheld cinematography and a plot that seems like well-worn territory. Furthermore, with a runtime just shy of ninety minutes it feels like it could have been a bit longer. To be honest, it’s probably not a movie for everyone.  Some may be turned off by its honest depiction of the effects of alcohol, as the portrayals can hit a little closer to home than people may like to admit. But these are cosmetic criticisms, and despite the presence of an Oscar-winner, it’s a beautifully executed independent film.

Smashed will linger with audiences for a long time. Superb performances and an emotionally resonant story round off one of this year’s best festival offerings. A truly inspired turn from Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes the film worth recommending to everyone, but younger twenty-somethings will really latch onto it. Smashed does a commendable job showing the real cost of both sides of addiction, and for that alone the film deserves praise.