Winstead triumphs in emotional drama

Though audiences will find much to like about director James Ponsoldt’s newest film,  the biggest highlight might come as a surprise: the performance from Ponsoldt’s leading lady, Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Intimate moment · Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead star as Charlie and Kate Hannah in James Ponsoldt’s drama, Smashed. – | Photo by Oana Marian, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Winstead shouldn’t be completely unknown to the mainstream viewer: She starred in smaller studio films like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  But she is not, by any stretch of imagination, an A-list star; she has yet to break that barrier which separates fine performers from the industry’s elite.

However, following her brutal realistic performance in Smashed, one can predict that Winstead will quickly become a household name.

Smashed follows the story of Kate Hannah (Winstead), a young woman struggling to control her alcohol addiction and the devastating effects it has on her life. Kate works as an elementary school teacher, but when her excessive drinking begins to influence her classroom lessons, a colleague suggests seeking guidance.

Smashed chronicles Kate’s endeavor to purge herself of this habit — yet the themes of this film involve deeper concepts than the realities of alcoholism. Through this story and the powerful marriage of Kate and Charlie Hannah (Aaron Paul), writer-director Ponsoldt creates impactful statements on family, marriage and love.

The most praiseworthy aspect of the film is easily the performances. All of the actors, from leading stars to supporting players, infuse their roles with a dark, natural quality that makes the film feel hauntingly authentic. Though each character is portrayed effectively, Winstead, in particular, seizes the audience’s attention each moment she’s on screen. She plays Hannah so honestly, managing to capture the character’s subdued moments while still hitting Kate’s drunk beats with heightened hilarity.

With performance, it’s often extremely difficult to effectively balance shifts between comedic and dramatic moments. The changes in tone are so quick and immediate in Smashed that the performances of most other actors would only come off as comical, interrupting any emotional connection the audience might have had with the characters on screen. Winstead, however, seamlessly moves between emotions, causing the audience to laugh hysterically one minute and tear up the next.

The dynamic nuances of Winstead’s performance are further highlighted through the beautiful chemistry of her relationship with Paul. Every subtle detail of their marriage, including how the couple intently gazes into each other’s eyes, is absolutely brilliant. From the beginning to the end, audiences can honestly feel that these two characters are deeply in love with one another.

Ponsoldt contrasts this intense love with fervent conflict later in the story. Originally, Paul’s character, Charlie, disapproves of Kate’s attempt at sobriety. He sees no issue with her “supposed” alcohol obsession and enjoys how liquor alleviates his wife’s stresses. Based on this description, one would expect the audience to perceive Charlie as selfish and crude. However, Paul plays him with a kind of sympathetic charm that persuades the viewer to hope for the preservation of their marriage.

But although Charlie is initially opposed to the notion of Alcoholics Anonymous, he begins to warm up to the idea as he observes the destruction Kate inflicts on herself. Here, Paul’s easy, understated actions emphasize Kate’s gradual change.

The aesthetics of Smashed are quite effective as well. Produced with only $1 million budget, the film has a grainy and texturized cinematographic style, which extends the feel of dark realism. Gorgeously shot on film stock rather than a digital drive, the photography adds dramatic contrast and visual imagery to Winstead’s performance.

The narrative structure of the story forms the only portion of Ponsoldt’s drama that isn’t quite as solid as the rest of the movie. For the first two acts, the plot moves smoothly as Kate progresses through her character arc, which is ultimately constructed in anticipation of reaching sobriety. In the third act, however, Ponsoldt seems to skip over major plot points and scenes that would have injected more emotion into the film. Sporting a short run time of only 85 minutes, the film had room to include additional scenes.

Despite a short, unexplained resolution, Smashed is still a very emotional and powerful film that demands to be seen — even if only because of Winstead’s praiseworthy turn.