It was only after director James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke had finished the script for their new film, Smashed, that Ponsoldt first went to observe an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Though his cowriter was an AA veteran, having gotten sober in her early 20s before becoming a successful comedian, Ponsoldt couldn’t have anticipated what happened when he attended a meeting with his Smashed star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
“You hear the funniest stories you’ve ever heard in your life, followed by like the saddest story you’ve ever heard in your life,” Ponsoldt tells TakePart. “And we really wanted to make a story that didn’t deal with pity or objectification [but instead] a humor and grace and dignity about someone with problems like we all have in trying to get her life together.”
Smashed is far from being the first film to take on the subject of addiction. In fact, along with Smashed’s release in theaters this week, the Reel Recovery Film Festival—a traveling collection of movies playing out in the realm of substance abuse—is making its rounds across North America this month.
For a generation inured to both cheesy public service announcements denouncing drunkenness and slick alcohol ads promoting consumption, Smashed feels like a breakthrough.
But for a generation inured to both cheesy public service announcements denouncing drunkenness and slick alcohol ads promoting consumption, Smashed feels like a breakthrough. The movie tells the tale of a young Los Angeles elementary school teacher named Kate (Winstead). Kate is at a crossroads. She can either continue waking up in sheets stained with her own urine and starting off the day with a few sips from a flask, or clean up her act.
The unhealthy cycle is hard to leave, particularly because Kate’s husband (Aaron Paul) has no trouble holding his liquor.
With a cast including The Help's Octavia Spencer and Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman, the film is often as light as the California sun it’s set under. Yet, by positioning sobriety as a lifestyle change rather than as a last resort for an unfixable social ill, Smashed also offers some serious encouragement for people to find help if they’re suspect their exploits under the influence have crossed the line between good fun and problematic.
“Between myself and Susan, we know tons of people who are on a day-to-day basis where they’re drinking a ton where they might not know they’re alcoholics,” Ponsoldt says. “We also have a bunch of friends who’ve destroyed their lives and killed themselves from drugs or booze. We know the extremes of it. The goal was to make something that was totally relatable.”
Ponsoldt likes to refer to Smashed as a “hangout movie.” The characters in it are pleasurable to be around, even without drinks in their hands. However, the way Ponsoldt’s people relate to each other, specifically once Kate sobers up and must decide whether or not to keep living with her fun-loving husband, could be hard-hitting for audiences.
“It’s about the relationship and how that relationship changes when that common bond, which is they’ve known each other drinking probably the whole time, shifts,” says Ponsoldt. “But it’s a story with a lot of love and hopefully people will see themselves in it.”
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