Movies about drugs and alcohol may be a dime(bag) a dozen, but James Ponsoldt's Smashed is so beautifully shot and well-acted as to transcend the genre. Centered on a 20-something alcoholic named Kate (an excellent Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the film further distinguishes itself via an atypical arc: Kate has already hit rock bottom at film's beginning: She wets the bed, pukes in front of a classroom of first-graders, and smokes crack within the first 10 minutes—and spends the rest of it clawing her way back into civilized society. Smashed is as much about recovery as addiction; Ponsoldt successfully makes the case that the 12 steps can sometimes be more difficult than whatever necessitated them. Kate's main obstacle in her struggle isn't her own willpower, it turns out, but the influence of her enabling husband Charlie (an equally good Aaron Paul, no stranger to this sort of material), who, having never hit the same lows as his wife, can't quite see the point of getting on the wagon. Ponsoldt doesn't take sides in their frequent back-and-forth, instead letting the growing distance between the couple act as its own statement on their incompatibility. There's more speechifying than there needs to be in an otherwise low-key movie of relative brevity, but Smashed at its worst is still better than many other films of its kind at their best.
The good times come to a halt for Paul and Winstead.
Opens Fri., Nov. 9 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated R. 85 minutes.