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Movie Review: 'Smashed' -- 3 stars

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Octavia Spencer in "Smashed."

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Octavia Spencer in "Smashed." Credit: Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Octavia Spencer in "Smashed."

3 stars
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Octavia Spencer
Rated R

On the surface, "Smashed" sounds like the ultimate clichéd indie film.

It's about an alcoholic elementary schoolteacher and the ways her attempts to stop drinking affect her marriage to a boozing, childish husband. Sundance loved it.

But director/co-writer James Ponsoldt and his talented cast depart from the expected norm here. There aren't screaming fits, titanic meltdowns or whimsical asides. Instead, the movie offers a no-frills look at the struggle of sobriety that emphasizes the challenges of the fraught decision to literally change your life.

In a departure from her big studio norm, Mary Elizabeth Winstead ("Live Free or Die Hard") plays 20-something Kate, whose marriage to Charlie (Aaron Paul) seems predicated on spending night after night getting wasted together. In the cold light of day, though, Kate hates her inebriated self and sets out to find her way toward a healthier life.

The filmmaker sets up several horror scenarios, including one involving an extended lie at Kate's job, but avoids melodrama in carrying them out. Instead, he opts for a patient approach that emphasizes long takes and quieter moments, a performance-driven approach that keeps the focus squarely where it belongs: on Winstead's shoulders.

The actress ably conveys the shame of a woman who hates herself for losing control and the sadness and longing that comes with saying goodbye to a great love and the friend, the booze, they shared.

At the end of the day, "Smashed" stands out because it regards Kate's struggle as less that of a broken woman becoming whole than as a painful break from the past.

There are some clunky moments here, but the movie conveys the fundamental truth that some victories don't always feel so victorious.

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