Ye old timey idea of what alcoholics and addicts look like can certainly be reinforced in the world of film. The white guy with the great career and beautiful wife who drinks it all away has become a trope of sorts, wheeled out by every actor from Ray Milland to Jack Lemmon to Michael Keaton and beyond.Short of beat up porkpie hat, a jug of wine and a mangy dog, we know this sadsack drunken character the second we see him. However, in the hands of talented storytellers, films about drunks and addicts can be incredibly relatable, compelling and even entertaining. Which thank god because if they weren’t it would make doing my podcast, Sloshed Cinema excruciating. The amazing thing is that I’ve been exposed to a wealth of movies about addiction and alcoholism. Some terrific, some not so terrific and some just fucking weird. My mission for season 2 (currently available on Soundcloud & iTunes!) was a simple one: think outside of the box. Sure, there’s the classics that everybody knows and talks about. They’re classics for a reason. I’ve even done shows on some of them. But I really wanted to have different films or maybe forgotten movies that immediately didn’t pop into your mind. I also wanted to challenge myself and watch things I hadn’t seen before. Smashed,episode two’s film, topped that list for sure. It seemed, on an intuitive level, like the kind of thing I’d enjoy even though I didn’t really know much about it. Well, score one for intuition because I was right.
The film, a Sundance hit back in 2012, Smashed tells the story of Kate and Charlie Hannah (played with excellence by MAry Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul). They seem fun, hip, cool, like the kind of couple you’d want to hang with and have a few beers with. They’re two twentysomething LA kids. He’s kind of an unemployed maybe musician with wealthy parents and she’s a teacher in an elementary school. Nice as they may seem, we pretty much know right away that these two like to drink. A lot. When super-hungover Kate barfs in front of her class early in the film, you get the picture that maybe her current lifestyle isn’t exactly a healthy one. This vomiting sets in motion a big time lie to her boss as well as a series of comedic but sad misunderstandings. Oh and like it usually does, Kate’s drinking gets worse. Capped off by a crack smoking caper in downtown Los Angeles, some Lochte-style urinating on a liquor store floor and messy drunk sex Kate decides to sober. Here’s where the central conflict of the film shows up: can you get sober when your spouse is still drinking? It’s an interesting question and one not unlike the dilemma we see Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon go through way back in 1962. Yet what makes Smashed compelling is that it has something those other drunk films don’t have. Kate.
Not only is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance as Kate unforgettable but so is the character. I read that the one of the writers of the film, Susan Burke wrote the movie on her own experiences of getting sober as a young woman and felt like her story hadn’t really been told. This intention is one of the things that makes Smashed feel important. This wasn’t some old white guy. It was a nice girl whose life keeps getting fucked up and she just wants it to stop. Her life is messy. Her relationships,outside of the ones she forages in recovery, are disastrous. Kate and her struggles are real, especially to anyone who’s been in early recovery. I found myself nodding my head and relating to Kate even though I’m a forty-something gay man.
And that right there is why and how addicts share their stories is so freaking cool. “What it was like, what happened and what it’s like now” is the basic framework of how we drunks and addicts tell our stories. But everything else in between? All of the juicy details and personal flares? Those are as varied as the faces you see in the halls of recovery or online. Peruse one of the many thousands of sobriety blogs and you’ll see people from all walks of life going through what you’re going through. It’s true certain types of sobriety writers online trend big time, therefore certain voices seem to be louder. Right now, the voice of recovery online is distinctly female and that’s cool considering we didn’t even talk about women being alcoholics until the 1950’s. Plus, a deeper Google dig reveals that really all types of people trying to stay clean, one day at a time. Films like Smashed are important because they’re reflecting our expanding idea of what sober people look like. Ditto with the growing voices of recovery online. True, there’s still work to be done (yeah just try finding movies about people of color getting sober–it ain’t easy!) and bullshit we need to stop all together (enough with the bashing/justification of how others choose to get sober!). The point is film and art is starting to reflect what we’ve sensed all along: people trying to get sober look just like everybody else.