Dir. James Ponsoldt
(2012, R, 85 minutes)

Smashed in some ways is similar to another film that will be released later this season: Silver Linings Playbook, which is also about the grim absurdity of disordered behavior, but this film, directed by James Ponsoldt, doesn’t have the same awkward shifts of tone, and it doesn’t resort to romantic comedy formulas.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as a kindergarten teacher who wakes up hungover one morning and vomits in front of her students. Panicked, she lies and tells them she’s pregnant. At this point she starts to wonder if maybe she should cut down on her drinking. She says this to her husband (Aaron Paul) one morning while both of them have beers in hand. That disconnect is interesting to watch: she talks about changing her behavior, but her behavior persists. She still doesn’t take it quite seriously enough.

The film takes an interesting, unconventional route towards her sobriety. It doesn’t arise from a moment of rock-bottom desperation. A coworker (Nick Offerman) tells her he is an addict, invites her to a meeting, and she goes without much conviction. In an excellent scene, she describes to the group what it’s like when she drinks, and she seems to be realizing all at once, as she hears herself say the words, how bad things have gotten and how unhappy she is.

The film makes an error in that it glosses over the pivotal early weeks of her recovery. Ponsoldt seems less interested in the process of overcoming alcoholism than in exploring the subsequent conflict: how can she remain sober when her husband continues to drink heavily? But the abrupt sobriety montage the film provides does little to truly convey her struggle, and thus takes some of the dramatic tension away from her marital woes. (Later, the film fast-forwards past another, even more crucial period of time.)

Nevertheless, this is an effective portrayal of how alcoholism is a debilitating problem that for a long time can look like no problem at all to the person drinking. Ponsoldt uses dark humor to avoid public-service-announcement moralizing, thanks in part to two strong supporting performances by Offerman and by Octavia Spencer as Winstead’s grounded AA sponsor. They are funny actors, but also warm, and their characters feel lived-in.

Winstead is also excellent, apart from one breakdown scene in which she and the film become uncharacteristically indulgent. The actress is best during quieter moments, showing not the flamboyant anguish of addiction but the everyday anxieties and dilemmas that would be all too easy to medicate with a beer, or two, or six.