Love is an essential foundation for any successful relationship -- but sadly, it's not always enough. Ideally, married couples grow and evolve as partners, taking on new challenges in their lives together. But what happens when one person decides to change, while the other remains stagnant? What happens when one person goes down a road that the other simply cannot follow? A sobering coming of age story from director James Ponsoldt, 'Smashed' takes a look at these very questions, and attempts to answer them through a rotating prism of drama and comedy.
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are a married couple who enjoy getting drunk and partying together. When Kate's drinking starts to negatively affect her professional life as a teacher, she decides to get sober. Charlie, however, continues to drink, and as Kate struggles to go through the AA process she slowly realizes that their relationship might be doomed. With the pair's love put to the test, they will have to decide whether to stay together and risk further destructive behavior, or finally part ways.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead really takes center stage here, and the actress does a fantastic job of creating a nuanced and believable character. Kate's alcoholism isn't simply cut and dry, and together Winstead and the filmmakers engender a welcome sense of authenticity that doesn't shy away from depicting the troubling or conversely jovial aspects of drinking. At first, Kate is shown to be a happy and fairly high functioning alcoholic, but that carefree spirit fades once she's denied what she wants, and it soon becomes clear that she has a real problem. Winstead carefully captures all of the mixed emotions that come with the initial steps toward sobriety, infusing the character with oscillating fear, frustration, doubt, and ultimately great strength.
Throughout it all, director/co-writer James Ponsoldt aims to reveal not only the hardships of alcohol abuse itself, but also the equally harsh consequences that come from actually taking on true sobriety, honesty, and responsibility. Though Kate's drinking leads to some terrible situations, it's really getting clean and addressing her problems that prove to be truly difficult. To this end, her journey through the process becomes a universally relatable coming of age story, and beyond the script's examination of addiction, the story is really about the broader challenges of growing up. Likewise, the core of the narrative also rests on the increasingly fragile relationship between Kate and Charlie, creating a bittersweet reverse-romance story. The gradual dissolution of their coupling is sad to watch unfold, and all of their attempts to lie to themselves about their situation ring true. The filmmakers also make sure to pepper in little moments of happiness throughout the couple's conflicts, reminding the audience that there is a solid groundwork of love beneath their dysfunction.
Keeping the emphasis on his actors, Ponsoldt mostly opts for a functional, almost verite style. The handheld camera work captures the action with little fanfare, letting the characters speak for themselves. With that said, there are some key instances where a slightly disorienting style is employed, with more forceful movements and quick cuts that mirror Kate's own unsettled state of mind. Sustained shots are also used during some particularly uncomfortable scenes, extending the tension of the characters' unpredictable behavior, creating a palpable level of unease. On the opposite end of the spectrum, one sequence that features Kate and Charlie enjoying a peaceful stroll, carries a faintly dreamy quality, reinforcing the fleeting beauty of their brief break from the rigors of reality. These subtle visual choices help to smooth over some of the film's shifting temperaments -- but unfortunately, some cracks in the execution remain.
As successful as most of the runtime is, there are some minor stumbles in the filmmaker's approach -- particularly when it comes to tone. Wavering between quirky levity and affecting drama, the movie is home to a rather irregular mood. While I admire the intent behind this mixture, the results don't always connect. Laughter is often derived from awkward, inappropriate behavior, but the comedy lacks finesse and frequently feels at odds with the serious subject matter. There are several moments that are seemingly meant to be funny that simply fall flat or feel too forced. This is particularly true of Nick Offerman's character. I'm a huge fan of the actor's work on 'Parks and Recreation,' but here he seems a little out of place. Conceptually, the idea of layering in comedy should work, but the combination just becomes clunky.
In many ways, the script is actually refreshingly straightforward, offering a simple, but thankfully not simplistic look at some complex issues. Sadly, the short running time does still leave a bit to be desired, and there are some aspects of the narrative that feel a little underdeveloped and breezed over. Some of Kate's struggles could have been delved into more thoroughly, and I was left wanting to see a few more moments between her and Charlie to help flesh out the different beats in their relationship. By the time the fittingly ambiguous climax comes around, there's a lingering sense that the writers could have gone a step or two deeper with the script and its characters, bringing more resonance to the drama and themes.
As Kate and Charlie learn, "love is the easy part," and sometimes other factors take hold, forcefully drawing people apart. Through a tragically unraveling romance, 'Smashed' offers an authentic but never preachy examination of alcohol abuse and the difficulties of growing up. Mary Elizabeth Winstead turns in a strong performance, and despite some issues with its tone, the picture ultimately proves to be perceptive. The script could use a little tinkering, but Ponsoldt's direction is sound, resulting in a heartfelt and thoughtful indie effort.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony brings 'Smashed' to Blu-ray on a BD-50 disc packaged in a keepcase. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A coded.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Nicely detailed and suitably stylized, the picture is technically and artistically proficient.
While there are some spikes in noise in a few odd shots here and there (particularly in the final scene), the digital source is mostly clean and free from any troublesome artifacts. Clarity is actually quite impressive, offering a sharp image that reveals lots of fine textures. Depth is also readily apparent, creating a pleasing sense of dimension. The color palette is slightly subdued and frequently emphasizes teals and blues, but bold yellows and reds also pop, providing a nice contrast. White levels can look a tad blown out, reinforcing the dreamy quality found in some scenes, and while not quite inky, blacks are solid.
Fueled by a low budget handheld style, 'Smashed' comes to Blu-ray with a surprisingly strong transfer. The muted but stylized colors work well with the narrative, and there are no major technical issues.
The film is presented with English, French, and Spanish DTS-HD MA 5.1 tracks, along with optional English, English SDH, Arabic, French, German and Turkish subtitles. Modest but effective, the mix does a nice job of subtly enhancing the movie's unique tone.
Speech is crisp and well prioritized throughout. The soundstage is relatively small, maintaining the story's intimate scope, but the deceptively cheery score is spread nicely around the room, adding some melodic levity to the serious subject matter. Likewise, some subtle ambiance adds a gentle sense of atmosphere to the proceedings, delicately layering background effects like distant cars and chirping birds into the track. Dynamic range is free from distortion, offering clean highs and some low frequency kick during a karaoke scene.
This is a relatively frontloaded and centralized mix, but the delicate sound design complements the story well, and the music features great separation and fidelity. Though restrained, a more robust soundstage would have likely added very little to the experience. Instead, the track does a nice job of letting the narrative speak for itself while still being quietly immersive.
Sony has provided a solid set of supplements, including a commentary, deleted scenes, and a behind-the-scenes featurette. All of the extras are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and optional English, French, and German subtitles (unless noted otherwise).
With its multifaceted look at alcohol abuse and relationship struggles, 'Smashed' offers an emotional and occasionally insightful experience. The film's mixture of comedy and drama isn't always as organic as it could be, but Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a great job of carrying the audience through the script's sometimes erratic tone. The video transfer features fairly muted colors but the style works well with the content, and though very modest, the audio mix suits the story perfectly. While not packed with special features, the included supplements are enlightening. This is a very solid indie effort, and a strong disc from Sony. Worth a look.