Canberra Film Festival Review: Smashed Smashed, directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke, won the U.S Dramatic Special Jury Prize For Excellence in Independent Film Producing at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. This impressively directed indie drama convincingly captures the trials and tribulations of substance abuse and provides a showcase for the talents of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World).

Kate (Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) are a young married couple who enjoy having a good time together. Their bond is centered on a mutual fondness for music, dancing and drinking…heavily, which places her rewarding primary school teaching position in jeopardy.

A drama of this nature is fueled by the strength of the script and by the performances. Burke has based the story on some of her own experiences, and this added insight is evident. Though we find ourselves criticizing Kate and disapprove of some of her behaviour, Burke offers a lot for us to love too. The very likeable Winstead carries the film in stellar fashion. She has warmth and charm (she loves her job and is a genuinely good teacher), which means she is popular amongst her students and peers, and has built a strong enough façade to ensure that no one suspects that she has a secret. She convincingly conveys the effects of a bender - both the high-spirited kind, and the more unpredictable and damaging – a feat I imagine is a very hard thing to do.

Paul is a far less sympathetic character, once we learn about his wealthy family, but his still-significant abuse is just as sad. The role doesn’t feel much of a stretch beyond his excellent work on Breaking Bad, however. Spencer is fantastic as Kate’s sponsor; supplying motivation and wisdom but without buttering up her advice. She tells it to Kate how it is, and it is so refreshing to see such a grounded performance in this role. Mary Kay Place has a small role as Kate’s mother, and learning about their troubling relationship is one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes.

What aids Smashed in being such an immersive character drama is the refreshing middle-class protagonist. It feels remarkably personal. Kate hasn’t come from a life of privilege but has worked hard to build a life worth fighting for. This makes her relatable and sympathetic. Though the subject matter is serious, Smashed has some effective humour that lightens the mood (Winstead and Offerman, in particular, share some amusing scenes) and avoids sentimentality.

The intimate hand-held photography situates us within Kate’s headspace, heightening the realism. Ponsoldt admirably utilizes lengthy unbroken takes, giving his actors freedom to improvise.

Fueled by an outstanding performance from Winstead, Smashed is an honest, authentic and emotionally affecting study of alcoholism and its effects, cycles of habit and facing up to one’s demons and unhealthy influences. 

[rating=4]

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22