‘Smashed’ director James Ponsoldt talks about ‘the drunk girl,’ John Cassavetes and ‘Jersey Shore’
Photo: Sony Picture Classics
"Smashed," which opens Friday in selected cities, centers on Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a 20-something-year-old woman who by day teaches grade school and by nights hits the bars hard with her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul). She's the sort of person who gets loaded at the local lounge and then wakes up a remote industrial part of town the next morning with no memory of how she got there. When Kate finally gets help and starts the slow, painful process to sobriety, she finds herself out of step with her husband, who is still an avid drinker.
Paul and the rest of the cast, which includes Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, and Megan Mullally, are excellent, but Winstead's turn as the lead is nothing short of astonishing. You will probably be hearing much more from her and her performance in the coming awards season.
Yet this is a movie that could have gone wrong in five dozen different ways, but director James Ponsoldt shows a seemingly effortless command of tone. The movie swings from scenes that are funny to ones that are deeply affecting with such aplomb that it isn't until the lights go up that you realize what a feat he has managed to pull off. The movie never stoops to self-congratulation, like a lot of movies that come out of Sundance these days, and it never looks down on its characters. Ponsoldt remains doggedly honest to the material.
I caught up with Ponsoldt the other day at a hotel in Beverly Hills. Bearded and dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, he looks less like an up-and-coming director than someone you might see next to you at a local dive bar or, perhaps, in line at the local art movie theater. Ponsoldt's enthusiasm for "Smashed" and for movies in general is palpable.
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Jonathan Crow: So, let me ask you the question that I'm sure you're being asked all the time. You are not a drunk 20-something girl.
James Ponsoldt: No, I'm not. Appearances can be deceiving.
JC: How did you get inside this character's head? I understand your writing partner has something to do with that.
Often, with movies that deal with substance abuse, they treat the subject with kid gloves that you're allowed to make fun of. They're "scared straight" movies. The truth is, there's a reason people drink. It's really fun.