The Spectacular Now – Review


A film about teenagers told with honesty and depth

The Spectacular Now was the third film to cap off my fourth day at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. That was back in March. It’s now August and the hit of Sundance and various other film festivals has finally made its way to theatrical release. My opinion from then has not changed: The Spectacular Now is one of the best films of 2013. I like to downplay such notions, pretending not to get hyperbolic and throw out such claims – at least not until it gets closer to the end of the year. But as I wrote back in March, James Ponsoldt’s third feature film is “so damn good I don’t know where to start.”

The Spectacular Now is the latest in what can be classified as a renaissance of coming-of-age movies. This summer alone we’ve already had a pair of films dealing with teenage awkwardness with The Kings of Summer and The Way, Way Back. This latest offering cuts through the BS of what we typically see in teen films. Here we have teens acting like teens (even though the two principle leads are old enough to buy beer). While it is funny at times, crazy hijinks and buffoonery is kept to a minimum. Supporting players, be they teachers or fellow teens, aren’t stock characters (i.e., the Drama Queen).  We even get moments of concern and apathy by, gasp, parents who usually don’t get much play in teenage films.

As someone who sees hundreds of films a year, those that I enjoy and those that remain with me the longest usually rely on lasting impact of the main character or characters. It’s why Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan stood shoulders above the rest in recent years. In The Spectacular Now, the two main actors, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, elevate this film from just good to being truly great. Rare is it that we have two characters that are so well drawn out and portrayed on screen. Some of the credit must be bestowed also to director James Ponsoldt, who has quickly become one of the best young filmmakers, and a true actor’s director (if you see his previous film Smashed and this one you’ll likely say the same), and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who previously penned the clever and unraveling romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer.

Miles Teller is an actor who has had supporting roles in such films as Footloose and 21 and Over, but he showed signs of being an actor to watch with the film Rabbit Hole, sharing scenes with Nicole Kidman. Carrying a cocky bravado his Sutter Keely is a popular high school senior, though one that is more inclined to be the class clown instead of class president. With a great-looking girlfriend in Cassidy (Brie Larson), his life-of-the-party, laissez faire nature turns to dumbstruck when she dumps him early into the fall semester of his senior year. Cassidy still loves Sutter just not his lack of ambition and his frequency to drink alcohol – oftentimes disguised with a large Styrofoam cup. So he does what broken hearts that are also functional alcoholics do – he goes on a bender and passes out on a neighborhood lawn Long Duck Dong style with no memory of where he parked his car or how he got there.

He meets Aimee Finecky (Woodley) when she discovers him sprawled on the lawn while she’s attending to her paper route. Still hung over, Sutter charms her into letting him help her deliver papers. There’s a little twinkle in Aimee’s eye; she’s not used to sharing time with a popular guy. She’s just a shy wallflower that goes unnoticed in the school halls. But she has the kind of untapped potential that will develop in her college years. She’s intelligent and has a natural beauty, unlike her classmates that are likely to apply makeup with paint sprayers.

What begins a platonic friendship soon grows more amorous. Sutter tries to play it off when he talks about her with his best friend, as if he was helping a charity case. As for Aimee’s best friend, she sees right through Sutter’s charm and wants him out of the picture. It’s almost as if James Ponsoldt’s motivation for her character was to be just like Ali Mills’s best friend, Susan, from The Karate Kid.

Despite the budding relationship between Sutter and Aimee, Cassidy still wants to hang out with her ex. Even when she rebounds with the school’s popular jock Cassidy still thinks about Sutter, at least the good times they had together. But as The Spectacular Now illustrates, the then and the now aren’t past and present to Sutter. He lives in a perpetual state of now. No past. No future. Just now. It’s the feeling that defines his character, but the underlying meaning isn’t fully revealed until the latter stages of the film when he reconnects with the father (Kyle Chandler) he hasn’t seen since he was a little boy. Then everything changes. After the reunion, both Sutter and the audience gain a greater understanding of his character. Sutter is an alcoholic, an inherited trait from the old man. How he’s been able to disguise it for the longest time is a surprise, but not as surprising as getting Aimee to take part in his dependence.

If making film comparisons, The Spectacular Now would be in the same family as Say Anything… and Days of Wine and Roses. It is very Cameron Crowe-esque, where many other coming-of-age movies strive to be in the realm of John Hughes’ film canon. Miles Teller looks to be channeling John Cusack, even going as far as to engage in a relationship with a girl that seems totally against type for his goofball nature. As for Shailene Woodley, she broke out of the confines of the small screen (as the star of The Secret Life of the American Teenager) and made her presence known alongside George Clooney in The Descendants. She’s so credible in the role as the shy ugly duckling that blossoms in the presence of Sutter. She doesn’t go from being a duckling to a supermodel overnight. Her transformation, like the film itself, has a natural progression.

That’s where I have to give James Ponsoldt and the cast their due. Together they achieve the type of authenticity that is rare with films nowadays. Instead of having forced emotion, there’s realism to the actions that take place, no matter if the scenes are big or small. The Spectacular Now is sweet and charming. It is also sad and emotional. But more than anything it is honest. The initial scenes help to establish the characters to the point where we are totally engaged. Then, when the story offers a richer experience not found in your average boy-meets-girl teen romance, we sit amazed with its outcome.

Here stands what I feel is one of the most endearing films about growing up.

Director: James Ponsoldt
Writer: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by Tim Tharp
Notable Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler

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