BY NOW, THE ISSUE of substance abuse is familiar enough that we know to look for warning signs.
Like waking up under a freeway on an abandoned couch. That's where schoolteacher Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself one less-than-fine morning, after a night of karaoke and beer and shots leads to a midnight drive with a passenger who pays her fare by offering free crack.
When she wakes up, Kate has no idea where she is, where her car is. All she knows is that sometime the night before, they both sustained significant damage (a sense of fear, confusion and dislocation nicely suggested by director James Ponsoldt, who has a knack for vivid context).
Kate, we grasp, has always been a good-time girl. A smart girl who breezed through high school and college doing what her friends did, only more so. Now, though, she's afraid. Kate realizes she's suddenly at the bottom of a slippery slope that she hadn't even recognized as a downhill grade, let alone a lubricated one.
And that's not the half of it. She's married to a man (Aaron Paul) who drinks just as heavily, and who can't abide Kate's anxiety about her drinking, because it would mean confronting his own behavior.
What follows is a "Days of Wine and Crack and Roses," a movie that reaffirms the particular difficulties faced by an alcoholic tethered by love to another problem drinker.
"Smashed" is low-budget, realistic, well-acted, and shrewd. Ponsoldt shows that Kate's recovery is fragile, prone to relapse. And while he shows the usefulness and value of the 12-step process, he makes sure than no one is excessively noble - in fact, he goes the other direction, giving a sort of gross-out, Apatow treatment to the fellow teacher (Nick Offerman, terrific) who helps save Kate's life, but can't control his larger feelings for her.
There are small, meaty roles also for Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as a sponsor, Megan Mulally as a disappointd colleague, and Mary Kay Place, as Kate's mom, who in a few minutes manages to suggest the origins of Kate's problem, and the possible future that awaits, always one drink away.
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or email@example.com. Read his blog at philly.com/KeepItReel.