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There is nothing new about the premise for Smashed, a drama about a couple’s battle with alcoholism, but the execution is anything but conventional. With a truly tender touch, director and co-writer James Ponsoldt injects a refreshing energy into the film, which builds upon real-life experiences of co-writer Susan Burke’s own battles with alcoholism. What really makes this film stand out, however, is a breathtaking performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead that is truly one of the best I’ve seen in years.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Kate Hannah, a school teacher whose love for alcohol begins to send her life into a downward spiral of lies, deceit, and waking up in the streets of Los Angeles. With the help of her colleague, Dave (Nick Offerman), and another recovering alcoholic, Jenny (Octavia Spencer), Kate attempts to turn her life around as she struggles with living without alcohol for the first time in her adult life. This change turns her marriage to Charlie (Aaron Paul) upside-down, which was previously based upon a mutual love of drinking.

Exceedingly emotional and honest in its approach, Smashed mostly manages to breathe fresh life into a movie whose themes and issues have been explored countless times. Based in part on the personal struggles with alcoholism, co-writer Susan Burke effuses a distinct personal touch to the story, which briskly explores Kate’s problems without getting too bogged down in the melodrama that often comes with such a tale.

From a technical standpoint, the editing from Suzanne Spangler is top-notch, as the film often employs quick, startling cuts-to-black which add a much-needed technical finesse to the film. Ponsoldt proves he’s a capable director here, in addition to the excellent performances he’s able to get from the cast, using flashy camerawork sparingly to add to, not distract from, the narrative.

Winstead is an utter revelation as Kate, with a truly phenomenal and engrossing performance that is one of the best I’ve seen in some time. Going from warm, charming and relatable to terrifyingly uncontrollable at the flip of a dime, Winstead masters all asked of her character in an absolutely wondrous display of talent from a true up-and-comer. Paul is perfectly placed against this dynamic performance, as Winstead works marvelously against him, making for a believable pairing throughout. Supporting performers Offerman, Spencer, Megan Mullally, and Mary Kay Place all do their part in adding to the film, although they aren’t really given much attention during the short running time.

While it suffers from similarities in narrative structure and execution nearly all films dealing with addiction have, the performances really make this one stand out. No matter if you’ve seen all dramas dealing with addiction, Smashed manages to break new ground with, at the very least, a singular, soul-wrenching performance at its center. At times equally funny and touching, yet often devastating, Smashed is a truly special glimpse into alcoholism that never gets too preachy or melodramatic, and is complete with an absolutely soaring, tour-de-force performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead that demands Oscar attention.

Grade: B+

Rated: R (for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use)

Smashed opens in theaters on October 12, 2012.

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