Near the end of the film Smashed, recovering alcoholic Kate refutes the AA maxim that “your worst day sober is better than your best day drunk.” She admits she had some fun times on the sauce—and while she doesn’t regret the decision to get sober, her new life is, quite frankly, “boring.” Still, she’s unabashedly grateful for this honest, difficult, “boring” new life.
This scene, which takes place on the day of Kate’s first sober anniversary, is one of many that make the film one of the most authentic portrayals of recovery we’ve seen in awhile. Too often, we see addiction appear on screen as an either/or story: defeat or redemption. Smashed, refreshingly, is neither—or rather, it is both. It shows recovery for what it really is: an arduous, albeit worthwhile process.
For us, Kate’s character was particularly relatable; she’s a 20-something, college-educated, NPR-listening, elementary school teacher. She could be our friend, our neighbor, our college classmate—she could even be us. And, as she says during a particularly jarring crack-induced speech, she’s not that different from the homeless folks with whom she uses drugs one night. This is a sad but poignant moment that hits home; it shows that addiction does indeed transcend the boundaries of age, race, class, and gender. While Kate’s character grew up with a struggling alcoholic single mother, her husband Charlie had a privileged upbringing—and yet they both went down the same path of alcoholism.
In addition to portraying the non-discriminatory nature of addiction, Smashed does an excellent job of showing addiction’s all-encompassing nature, too. We watch, cringing, as Kate tosses back booze in the shower, at breakfast, in the car—all despite great risks and serious consequences. We watch as alcohol turns her into a completely different person. The creation of Kate’s alternate alcohol-induced personality is the film’s most interesting aspect; even when she’s absolutely wasted, she isn’t a monster. On the contrary, she’s often charming and hilarious. But it’s a credit to actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead that we can always see Kate’s pathetic desperation underneath the drunken charisma.
Kate isn’t the film’s only surprisingly three-dimensional character; her husband Charlie, played by Aaron Paul, is both awful and adorable. We understand the complexity of his relationship with Kate as well as the ease of their repartee—both when they’re “smashed” and during their brief windows of sobriety. We truly feel for this couple; neither is a hero and neither is a villain. Kate’s aging alcoholic mother, too, could have easily gone down the road of bad caricature, but Mary Kay Place manages to convey the mother’s real love for her daughter—despite her ineptitude at understanding Kate’s desire to get sober.
Of course, the film’s hits are not without a few misses. Megan Mullally’s doddering, oblivious principal takes an unrealistic 360-degree turn from supportive to disgusted when she discovers that Kate’s ongoing sickness is due to alcoholism rather than pregnancy. And not even Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer could salvage the two-dimensional characterization of Kate’s AA sponsor, who seems to exist only in order to dispense coffee, cake, and wisdom.
Yet despite its occasional predictability (we know Kate is going to get fired, we know her relationship will implode, and we can certainly predict that there will be The Relapse Scene), we have to disagree with The Washington Post’s assertion that the film “never really rises much above a dramatic public-service announcement.” Sure, it makes a few points that have been made many times: addiction is a disease, quitting is hard, addicts aren’t bad people. But these general statements don’t obscure the fact that Smashed (and particularly Mary Elizabeth Winstead) provides a very specific and relatable example of the often-subtle devastation of this disease.
It’s individual stories like Kate’s – not sweeping, general facts – that have the power to change hearts and minds, lessen the stigma surrounding addiction and recovery, and maybe even inspire somebody to get help.
Emma Edelman and Kate Schmier
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