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Sundance 2012: Smashed

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So many addiction narratives make it easy to say, "That's not me. I might drink a lot, but it's not that bad." Smashed acknowledges why anybody drinks in the first place: because it's fun. Until it isn't. Sober is pretty well synonymous with boring and who wants to be boring?

The urge to keep getting up and failing and trying again even if it means failing all the more spectacularly and painfully makes for a good story. The kind that can change you, and your own way of seeing the world. Smashed does this beautifully, aided in large part by a tour-de-force performance full of humor and exquisite vulnerability from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Hannah, an alcoholic schoolteacher married to music writer Charlie, played with equal parts ache and bravado by Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul.

Screenwriters James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke put you squarely in Kate's shoes. You experience her shame and then once again the-fun-that-doesn't-quite-erase as she bounces down to bottom. It made me look at my own habits and question them in a way that no other addiction story has, mostly because it's funny, relatable, and sincere. There's a great scene early on where Kate is teaching a classroom full of kids that starts out funny in that way that being drunk sometimes is. She gets the kids to fill in the blanks on a white board with a boozy exuberance that definitely keeps them engaged. The kids are all the more disturbingly engaged at the scene's awful climax. This one poignant, potent scene is a better litmus test than any questionnaire in trying to figure out where the boundaries of recreation and addiction are.

Smashed refuses to let you see Kate and Charlie as Other, and this is what makes it so effective. They're obviously in love with each other, even if alcohol might be dissolving some of the differences between them. I was rooting for them, even as I was cringing. There's a drunken sex scene that was one of the many moments that the film offered me to say, Oh, hell yes I've been there. How have I not seen that in a film before? It was a great example of Ponsoldt's skilled direction; it brings the funny, then presses until it catches in your throat. Smashed deftly crafts a gently potent mirror into which I had to ask myself: Where can I stop checking off the "been there" boxes? It made me ask myself again, "How to live?" This, to me, is a sign of top-notch storytelling.

The perils of honesty and post-booze social awkwardness are downright charming as portrayed by Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) as Mr. Davies, the Vice Principal. If he were drunk when he says what he does to her in the car, he would probably have gotten away with it, but sober, it squats there like the socially awkward moment it is. Honesty wins the day when it is laughed about later at the culmination of Kate's lies, or the worst baby shower ever. This scene and the one following show that honesty is pretty funny too, and has the benefit of being earned.

This is no Leaving Las Vegas. It's way more pragmatic and certainly brighter than that. There's no scene where Kate is filling up a shopping cart with a willfully self-destructive pile of bottles. She doesn't suffer from terminal self-loathing, the good times just got out of hand. At no point does director James Ponsoldt let the viewer off the hook and say, "Oh, I would never do that." It's exactly Kate's good-girlishness that brings her to the bottom of nowhere. And it's exactly the courage to fail again that gets her out, even if it means losing her loving, if stagnant, husband. There's no sense that everything is all better sober, but the way the penultimate scene cuts between Kate and Charlie at least suggests that Kate's sobriety has firmer joys in store than Charlie's party boy ferment.

At the end of the day, Smashed is every bit as much coming of age story as it is a recovery tale. A call to maturity that manages to transcend the culture's juvenile siren song. There's been a lot of that theme here at Sundance: The fear of growing up that many in my generation of Americans seem to fall prey to, and the resulting anomie and urge toward obliteration resulting from that protracted adolescence. Rick Alverson's The Comedy comes to mind. There we have unrelenting, unredeemed, unapologetic self-destruction. On the other hand, there are films so unabashed in their innocence, like The First Time, that they're bringing out the snark in the press tent. I'm wondering if Smashed isn't in some ways the curated heart of the 2012 program, something of a blueprint toward the middle ground, toward maturity. And not to get all grandiose, but maybe this blueprint can help us toward a better way for our whole country through doing better ourselves. I could be reading too much into the Sundance programming here, but I kind of hope not.