Editor’s Note: This article is by contributing editor Michelle McClellan.
Smashed (2012) is the story of a young woman named Kate in present-day Los Angeles who confronts her excessive drinking through the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship. She gains sobriety, although her marriage disintegrates and she is fired from her job in the process. The overall narrative trajectory is familiar: it traces Kate’s life as she moves from her out-of-control drinking to the supportive intervention of a colleague, to the challenges of early sobriety, to a relapse when she loses her job, and then her one-year sober anniversary. While previous addiction films have featured alcoholic women as protagonists at least as far back as The Smash-Up (1947), the central character in this genre is still more likely to be a man. What makes Smashed unique is that Kate’s identity as a young married woman allows pregnancy to be deployed as a plot device, revealing deeply-held ideas about drinking and maternity in the United States.
As the story begins, Kate and her husband Charlie live almost like college students, drinking heavily with Charlie’s brother and assorted male friends. While Charlie works at home as a music critic and spends a considerable amount of time playing video games, Kate is an elementary school teacher. As she pulls herself together to go to school one morning, she continues to drink while in the shower and then takes a few nips in her car in the parking lot before going in to her classroom. A dynamic teacher despite her hangover, she vomits in front of her young charges. When one of the children asks whether she is pregnant, she says yes. Principal Barnes congratulates her and sends her home to rest, while the assistant principal Mr. Davies takes over her class. It turns out that Mr. Davies saw her in the car that morning and he confronts her, warning her of the danger of drinking during pregnancy. For a woman like Kate, that indictment is more stigmatizing than the reality, so she confesses that she is not really pregnant but instead hung over.
After this opening sequence, we see Kate and Charlie together, often playful and affectionate, as they drink at home and in bars. One night, though, she goes out to buy more liquor after Charlie has fallen asleep during sex. It is too late for alcohol to be sold, and Kate insults the store clerk, urinates on the floor when she cannot make it to the restroom in time, and steals a bottle of wine. In the next scene she is sleeping outside, where she has presumably passed out after crashing her bicycle nearby. She tells Charlie she is concerned about her drinking, and Mr. Davies, who is in recovery, takes her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Charlie claims he wants to help but seems unsure what to do. To make matters worse, he violates Kate’s trust by telling his brother about some of her escapades.
Although Mr. Davies escorts Kate to her first AA meeting and serves as an important support, she finds a female sponsor, Jenny. As a modern young woman who seemed to function as one of the guys when she was drinking, Kate claims not to understand the rationale for same-sex sponsorship. In clumsy and crude language, Mr. Davies confesses that he is sexually attracted to her. This exchange is not portrayed as threatening or destructive to Kate’s new sobriety. While she is younger, she is more socially skilled than he; she deflects his remarks and they remain friends. It is striking that Kate’s sexuality becomes an issue in recovery, while the sexual danger she might have faced when she passed out in random locations around the city, awakening alone and disoriented, goes unremarked upon. Within her marriage, sexual intimacy serves as a barometer of the relationship, as on the night when Charlie fell asleep. Later, when Kate relapses and returns home drunk, she belligerently demands that Charlie “be a man,” that he drink with her and make love to her.
Meanwhile, Principal Barnes and the schoolchildren continue to believe Kate is pregnant. The principal, in fact, mothers Kate, providing nutritious snacks, urging her to share her feelings about the baby, and arranging a baby shower for her at school. When Kate visits her own mother Rochelle to tell her that she has stopped drinking, Rochelle immediately assumes that Kate is pregnant. Rochelle then speaks pejoratively of AA and warns Charlie that sobriety changes a spouse, as she found when Kate’s father stopped drinking and then left her for another woman.
Back at school, one of the children asks Kate why she is not getting fatter as a result of the baby, and Kate awkwardly tells the students that she has had a miscarriage. Although Charlie thinks it is funny, Kate feels very upset that she has lied repeatedly and turns to her sponsor to help navigate the situation. When Principal Barnes offers condolences over the miscarriage, Kate tells her the truth, that she was never pregnant and that she is an alcoholic. With shock and dismay, the principal replies that this is “sickening” and “humiliating.” It is not clear whether she is referring to Kate’s drinking problem, or the deception, or both—presumably they are of a piece and the principal fires Kate for the irresponsibility she has shown, explaining, “I’m afraid I can’t have you at the school any longer.”
Kate packs her things and heads straight to a bar, where she downs double whiskeys. Mr. Davies and Jenny take her home, drunk, where she has a tumultuous scene with Charlie and concludes that she cannot remain with him and stay sober. We then see Kate speaking at her one-year sober anniversary; as in other recovery films, her remarks serve a didactic as well as dramatic purpose, educating the audience about the fellowship and its understanding of alcoholism. In the very last scene, she returns to the house where she used to live with Charlie. His drinking has accelerated and he asks whether she would take him back if he attended meetings. She explains that it does not work that way, and while the audience may hope the couple will reunite, Kate’s sobriety is a hard-won accomplishment worth protecting.
The filmmakers and actors explain in various interviews that they intended the film to be universal, a coming-of-age narrative and a love story. This view suggests that that recovery from addiction is akin to growing up and achieving full maturity as an adult. That they even approached the subject this way indicates how much the rhetoric of addiction and recovery has permeated our popular culture, whether we recognize it as such or not.
Despite these claims of universalism, however, the film is far more specific than it seems. The plot of Smashed can unfold as it does because of a particular constellation of ideas about alcoholism and drinking during pregnancy in our historical moment. That the filmmakers specifically chose alcohol (rather than other drugs) and a young protagonist (who is white, though they did not directly address this point in their commentaries) means that the film can make targeted commentary about a certain population’s use of alcohol. Notably, it suggests that alcohol as a substance has been largely normalized and is distinct from other drugs. (For example, while they consume vast quantities of liquor, Charlie is horrified when Kate tells him she smoked crack while giving another woman a ride home from a bar.)
Yet it also shows how normalization has its limits. As a woman of childbearing age, Kate finds that her drinking habits draw scrutiny and take on a wider meaning regardless of whether people know she is an alcoholic or not. She loses her job (which, coincidentally, rests on her working with children), her marriage, and a fake pregnancy because of alcohol. But at the end, either because of this particular constellation of factors or in spite of it, she recovers and succeeds.