Opening to solid numbers from just four theaters last weekend, the little indie Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is following up its successful debut at Sundance earlier this year, earning mostly positive reviews for its coming-of-age story of Winstead’s young, married school teacher, Kate, who realizes it’s time to grow up, time to leave her immature, partying days behind to focus on the things that matter to her most … her husband, Charlie (“Breaking Bad” two-time Emmy® winner Aaron Paul), and her career and students.
On the surface, the movie’s topic is a serious one as we see Kate’s drinking lend itself to embarrassing physical and emotional consequence – urinating the bed, waking up not in her home but outside in dangerous, unfamiliar environments (the “banks” of the Los Angeles river and the downtown setting can be sketchy, to say the least) and what is her eventual rock-bottom, vomiting in front of her young, impressionable and observant students.
But co-writers James Ponsoldt, who also directed, and Susan Burke were careful to not burden the story with overly dramatic moments, infusing the tone of the movie with lighter moments, a reflection of Kate’s life with the unpredictability of addiction. And it’s not been lost on audiences.
“It’s great to hear people laugh, but it’s equally great and moving to have people after screenings come up to me and confess things, tell me stuff that they’re going through or ‘I’m 25 years sober and this is a completely honest portrayal,’ Ponsoldt says of his experience watching the movie with audiences. ”If we got it wrong, I think we would’ve been crucified, so I’m glad we got it right!
A lot of the levity is thanks to scenes involving Kate’s principal and assistant principal, played by real-life husband and wife Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman, respectively. Never sharing a scene together, the two spend their screen time with Winstead, Mullally as a slightly naïve boss, excited for what she thinks is big news for Kate, yet unaware of the deception that leads to an uncomfortable confession, and Offerman as a recovering addict who finds a kindred soul in Kate, becoming an important part of her support system…his own eventual embarrassment a lesson – and endearing quality – to Kate.
“I think that really speaks to James and Susan, the way they wrote these characters with such humanity,” Winstead observes. ”They can really get away with almost anything because you see that, inside, they want to be good, they’re trying to be good people, they just screw up a lot.”
Winstead’s Kate certainly does her own amount of screwing up in this tale who proves the actress’ worth beyond measure. She transcends the material, making every single scene come to life, be it an awkward moment (or two) with Offerman, spiraling out of control in a drunken stupor, advancing her workplace web of lies, facing her alcoholic mother (a very effective Mary Kay Place), trying to reel in her just-as-drunk husband who doesn’t see the problem in their love of libations, or facing her demons privately and in front of fellow alcoholics at an AA meeting (where she finds a sponsor, played by Oscar® winner Octavia Spencer).
But through it all, the one person Kate needs most at her side isn’t. Husband Charlie doesn’t see the problem in their lifestyle, leading to some explosive scenes between the two that push the limits of their commitment.
“Every scene we would push to the most extreme place, so there are versions of every take that are crazy, emotional, screaming, crying, throwing things,” Winstead explains, “and [James] was very smart not to include all of that in the film because that would just be too much.”
Conservative on the drama, Ponsoldt says his intent was to make a love story and a movie that questions whether people really have the ability to change, not one necessarily about an addict or recovery. ”If it’s a catalyst for a conversation, that’s a great thing, because it was never intended to be a ‘message film.’”
Just 27 years old, Winstead has already starred in her fare share of action (Live Free or Die Hard and its upcoming sequel; Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and genre movies (Death Proof, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Final Destination 3). Following her performance here, one that very well could land her a Lead Actress Oscar® nomination, Winstead should have her pick of rewarding, challenging and high-profile roles.
What she accomplishes in Smashed isn’t easy, exposing a woman’s most shameful actions, accepting and sharing the pain that comes with admitting her addiction, and making tough decisions about her life that might mean leaving behind those she loves most. She is heartbreaking and vibrant in the same beat, and it’s evident Winstead gave everything she had to her performance.
The Seven Sees has a more in-depth look at the story and characters as Winstead explains why she felt like an “open wound” shooting the movie and talks about the audition scene that got the attention of her parents and audiences, Ponsoldt tells why he had to limit his expectations of those audiences, and Place reveals what a Bloody Mary told her about playing Kate’s mother.