[A series of daily updates on screenings at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. For more follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter @GeoffBerkshire.]
While the last few years at Sundance have provided one breakthrough ingénue after the next—Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”), Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”)—you may already be familiar with the “It Girl” of this year’s fest. Mary Elizabeth Winstead arrived at Sundance with a resume of middling horror films (“Final Destination 3,” “The Thing”), cult favorites (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof”) and one legitimate blockbuster (“Live Free or Die Hard”). But she’s never had a role as rich and demanding as the alcoholic stumbling towards sobriety at the center of “Smashed.”
A return engagement for director James Ponsoldt (following his little-seen 2006 drama “Off the Black” starring Nick Nolte), “Smashed” focuses on elementary school teacher Kate (Winstead), who experiences a series of rock-bottoms—from throwing up in front of her students to smoking crack and waking up abandoned and alone in the middle of an industrial area. She’s bright enough to realize it’s time to straighten out, but her fun-loving trust fund supported boyfriend (Aaron Paul) doesn’t make it easy to give up a booze-fueled lifestyle.
Fortunately, Kate has the support of her understanding superiors—a Principal (Megan Mullally) who mistakenly believes Kate is pregnant and a Vice Principal (Nick Offerman) who knows the truth, and introduces her to AA. Kate finds a sponsor (Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer adds to the cast’s embarrassment of riches) and starts to turn her life around, but it won’t be an easy process.
Ponsoldt and co-writer Susan Burke (herself a recovering alcoholic) avoid the typical pitfalls of addiction dramas—excessive melodrama or message movie moralizing—and instead create a credible portrait of rocky recovery. An exceedingly modest movie, borne out by an unusually brisk 81 minute running time, “Smashed” still manages to linger in the memory thanks to Winstead’s dedicated efforts. She finally finds her breakout—years in the making.
Quick hits on more Sundance 2012 titles:
- “The Words”: A starry cast led by Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Zoe Saldana and Olivia Wilde surely helped this directorial debut from Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal land the festival’s closing night slot, but the literary drama suffers from the uneasy mix of a complex structure and overly simplistic narrative. Quaid stars as a successful writer who has penned a story about aspiring writer Rory (Cooper) who gets his big break when he discovers an anonymous manuscript and takes credit for its authorship. Rory is forced to face the truth when he encounters the real author (Irons), who explains the origin of the text when he was a younger man (Ben Barnes).
The film’s multiple layers are presented in a straightforward manner that’s easy enough to follow, but rarely as gripping as intended. The largely dialogue-free sections featuring Barnes are especially weak. And the overall message about the price of success and the moral dilemmas that arise when you’re living a lie are never provocative enough to elevate the film above the level of polite wannabe-prestige drama.
- “Twenty-Eight Hotel Rooms”: An author (Chris Messina) and an accountant (Marin Ireland) enjoy a single night of passion and return to their separate lives, only to find themselves drawn back together by chance and choice over the next several years. We see only the time they spend together—sometimes in brief glimpses, sometimes in more extended sequences—as their relationship takes on the characteristics of all long-term intimate connections. They get to know each other, have fun, become obsessed, get angry, feel jealous, fall in love. All the while they maintain their own lives outside of the affair. Both get married, to other people. They think about giving up the stolen moments and getting together for real, but there’s always a reason not to.
“Twenty-Eight Hotel Rooms” is the writing-directing debut of actor Matt Ross (“Big Love”), who gets terrific, physically uninhibited and emotionally raw work out of Messina and Ireland. But the conceit of observing infidelity only from the “inside” is a bit of a cheat. We learn a little about the characters’ lives outside of the affair, but not enough to determine what’s really at stake if they keep messing around or whether it actually matters if they ever “legitimize” their hookups.
Check out the full collection of 2012 Sundance Film Festival diaries