Leaving Los Angeles: Ponsoldt’s Feature of Addiction & Recovery Anchored by Strong Lead
Director James Ponsoldt follows up his under seen 2006 debut Off the Black with Smashed, an excellent, albeit hard sell drama about one woman’s decision to battle her alcohol addiction. But Ponsoldt has hardly made the downer it would seem to be on paper, avoiding both despair and schmaltzy melodrama for a realistic, down to earth depiction of the pitfalls on the way to making a better life for yourself. While there’s not much in the way of surprise here narrative wise, Ponsoldt has managed to bring us one of this year’s best acting performances with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose name, in a fair world, would be seriously considered for recognition come awards season.
Kate (Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are a young married couple that like to have a good time. It seems that they can’t go an evening, or a even a day, without getting drunk to the point of obliteration. We come upon them blearily waking up to an insistent alarm, both hung over while Kate has to get ready to go to work teaching first graders. Swigging on a beer as she hits the shower, she also discreetly suckles a flask when arriving in the work parking lot. Joyously bouncy around her students, Kate suddenly vomits, leading her class to ask if she’s pregnant. In her embarrassment, she lies and says she’s is. The news spreads quickly to Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally), a woman who immediately becomes overzealous about Kate’s pregnancy, unable to have any children of her own. The only thing is, the vice principal, Dave (Nick Offerman), knows Kate was drinking in the parking lot, and, upon being confronted, she admits her predicament to him. Beginning to think she needs help, several other isolated events related to drinking sees Kate going to AA meetings with Dave, himself a recovering addict and sober for nine years. There she meets, Jenny (Octavia Spencer), a woman she’s immediately impressed with and thus, finds a sponsor. But all is not well on her home turf, where her distant mother, Rochelle (Mary Kay Place) and hard-partying husband don’t seem to appreciate her moves to clean up her life. When an unfortunate event at work triggers Kate to drink again, she indulges in a drunken confrontation that finally forces her to make a drastic decision.
There’s no shortage of alcoholism or the long, hard road to recovery on the silver screen, but Smashed has to be one of the least melodramatic depictions of either. Instead, it’s realistic and frank in its approach, with some subtle moments of comedy that aren’t at the expense of its messy heroine. Having previously appeared in supporting roles in some entertaining (Death Proof, 2006) and positively sub-par (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in 2010; The Thing in 2011) mainstream efforts, Winstead gets to show that she’s quite talented. Watch her as she tears up brilliantly during her first AA meeting, deftly handles an awkward come on from her boss, and, like a woman possessed, drunkenly rails against her husband in the film’s most cinematic moment as she declares she cannot have a sober life living with him. Smashed is not attempting to be a heartbreaking film about addiction, recovery, or responsibility, but it’s a rather touching portrait of coping with life and learning to make better choices for yourself. Beyond Winstead, Ponsoldt has assembled some excellent support, with uncomfortable moments from Megan Mullally, and a meaningful turn from Nick Offerman. The always wonderful Octavia Spencer is finally getting some more substantial material after her Oscar win for 2011’s The Help, and she gets a decently fleshed out role here. And there’s an easy to overlook performance from Aaron Paul, who could almost have appeared nonexistent in relation to Winstead, but manages to nail a few of his lucid scenes to surprising effect. There’s nothing completely astonishing or shocking that goes on in Smashed, but that’s not to say it isn’t captivating and completely worth your time. Sobriety isn’t easy and neither is making a film about it, but somehow Ponsoldt has managed to do an excellent job making one.
Reviewed on September 09 at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival –CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA Programme.