Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a fine alcoholic. In Smashed, her character, Kate, talks too loud. She wavers too much. She hunts for remnants of liquor like they were drops of water in a desert, and her moods swing like a pendulum. To her husband, Charlie (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), she’s his “drunk, drunk, drunk angel.” To a roomful of bar patrons, she’s an enthusiastic, loose-limbed, off-key karaoke queen. And to the homeless female crack smoker to whom she gives an inebriated ride, she’s “a hardcore drinking bitch like me!” Kate ends up smoking crack that night and sleeping it off under a bridge.
It’s not the only bad spot she’s gotten herself into lately: After waking up hungover and taking swigs of beer in the shower and a chaser from a flask in her car, Kate vomits in front of her first-grade class. “Ms. Hannah, are you pregnant?” a student asks. Yeah, that’s it, she says. Whoops. The news flies up to the so-happy-for-her! principal (Megan Mullally) so fast that—well, her head was already spinning. Now she has to fake a pregnancy. As Kate tells Charlie when she’s explaining why she wants to curb her vice, “The drinking leads to everything stupid that I do.”
Winstead’s not exactly a familiar face; even in her probably best-known role, as Ramona in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, she was semidisguised under ever-changing hair colors. But her Kate—if anyone bothers to see this film—may finally get her noticed. If her performance is short of the Oscar-winning brilliance of Nicolas Cage’s charismatic drunk in Leaving Las Vegas, blame the writing: Co-scripted by director James Ponsoldt (whose first film, 2006’s Off the Black, was also about an alcoholic) and first-timer Susan Burke, Smashed is compelling thanks to Winstead, but ultimately superficial. When Kate starts going to AA meetings, encouraged by her kinda-creepy vice principal (Nick Offerman) in whom she confides (seemingly stupidly at first), suddenly another “friend of Bill” is saying how hard the first three months are and effectively offering Kate congratulations.
So, we see Kate go to one meeting, then she’s sober. Easy-peasy.
Arguably, Smashed is really about the trials an alcoholic faces in her post-drinking life—predominantly how her relationships change, especially with her drinking buddies, and the guilt she feels about all her past bad behavior while under the influence. (At times, Kate is practically feral, a state particularly well-demonstrated in one scene in which a convenience store clerk won’t sell her wine after the legal cutoff time.) But damn, getting off the sauce is a trial, too, and one Ponsoldt should have shown us. There’s no struggle here except for the decision to get sober in the first place (and even that is portrayed as being as easily made by Kate as what to wear that day) and how to negotiate situations in which alcohol is present once she’s clean. (“Go to the bar!” she tells Charlie when he and his friends tempt her. Whew, that was close!)
Octavia Spencer co-stars as Kate’s sponsor, and through her AA speeches and talks with Kate, we get some idea of what the process is like. But Kate’s the one we’re interested in. And even though Winstead is in nearly every scene, just like the character in her partying days, we don’t ever get quite enough.
Sister Directed by Ursula Meier
Director and co-writer Ursula Meier’s Sister is deceptively simple. On its surface, it’s about a 12-year-old boy named Simon who lives with his older sister, Louise, in a cramped apartment at the foot of a Swiss ski resort. Their parents were killed in a car accident—or so Simon’s story goes—and though Louise works the odd job or gets cash and food from jerk boyfriends, it’s Simon who’s really the breadwinner. Every year, he buys a season pass to the resort. And every year, he steals the best ski equipment from the wealthy patrons, lining his pockets with cash by selling the stuff secondhand. Simon tosses money Louise’s way whenever he is, for example, lonely and trying to persuade her to let him sleep in her bed or just wants her to get something for herself. “Buy some nice jeans,” he tells her.
The relationship at times seems nearly incestuous, with Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) often instructing the lovely Louise (Léa Seydoux) to turn around several times when she’s modeling a new (stolen) item of clothing and remarking that she has a nice ass. And there is more to the story that Meier (who co-wrote the screenplay with Antoine Jaccoud, though Gilles Taurand is also credited as a co-writer) unveils out of nowhere, giving the sleepy film a nice shot in the arm just when you’re wondering if that’s all there is.
Simon’s got no one but Louise, so it’s no surprise that they’re close. The kids he knows are predominantly his customers, and he treats them as such, telling one, for example, to come back in the morning when he knocks on Simon’s door dissatisfied with a pair of skis. (The problem isn’t that they don’t work—it’s that they look too new, and his dad will know they’re stolen. Simon, an old pro, knows just how to scuff them up, just as he knows how to rewax too-used ones to a shiny, sellable state.) When Simon cozies up to a young mom and her kids, warming her by lying and saying he shares a name with her son, it’s unclear whether he’s setting up another mark or just wants a mother’s affection. As the film goes on, it seems that it’s a little from Column A and a little from Column B.
The scrappy but somehow still charming Simon keeps stealing, naïve and heartbreaking Louise keeps getting involved with the wrong guys, and the pair keep cycling between being best friends and enemies (sometimes even physically fighting each other). But in between the barely there lines is commentary about family, both conventional and unconventional; about being loved; about needing someone to help you get by versus wanting someone to help you get by.
For all the inaction that’s here, there’s still one subplot involving a resort cook who for unclear reasons gets involved in Simon’s thievery in a manner that’s unnecessary and distracting. Your whole focus will be on a revelatory line halfway through the film that deepens the meaning of all that comes before and after it. It’s the key to elevating Sister to feature-worthy status instead of maintaining its initial feel of a stretched-out short.