Film Review: The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now (2013)

dir: James Ponsoldt

cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now

Within the smattering of American teen coming-of-age films there are very few that have tackled the menaces of teen alcoholism. James Ponsoldt’s staggeringly deft picture of young hearts crying does so, and the result is quite breathtaking. The desires and disasters of the tragic Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, Project X) and hopeful Aimee Fineky (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants) are beautifully crafted on-screen through Ponsoldt’s evocative direction and accentuated further by a brutally honest script penned by 500 Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. The film caused quite a stir when premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with the two mesmeric leads earning the Special Jury Award for Acting beating off intense competition as you can imagine.

The story is more complex than the brief opening scene suggests as self-proclaimed cool kid Sutter talks us through how “fucking amazing” his life and girlfriend are on the eve of graduating from high school. Then she dumps him, he goes on an alcohol-frenzied bender and ends up passed out on the front lawn of a random house. Aimee, the geeky girl who loves Manga that he never noticed at school, finds him the next morning. The evolution of their relationship underpins the rest of the film as Aimee tentatively plans for an exciting future, Sutter is wholeheartedly committed to the here and now. There is an eclectic chemistry between the two actors that is rarely explored in such tender detail for a modern teen film. At first Sutter’s intentions are to “help the girl out” by giving her the “boyfriend experience” before she goes on to college, however Aimee’s earnest character proves too endearing and Sutter finds himself overwhelmed by her charming affection.

Woodley negotiates between Aimee’s innocence and naivety with adept art. The sincerity of her performance is at times astounding. Often unswathe of make-up, plainly dressed and oozing with natural girl-next-door quality, she is effervescent onscreen as the paradigm of good that the eccentric Sutter desperately tries to keep pace with. There are two noteworthy scenes in which she is particularly charming. Firstly, she is excitedly flattered when Sutter asks her to help him with his geometry class, much to the disdain of her friend who lingers suspiciously as Aimee writes her number and looks upon Sutter dewy-eyed in wonder. I think every teenage boy who has ever fallen for a girl at school would have wanted her to look at him the way Aimee looks at Sutter. Secondly, whilst at dinner with Sutter’s sister and her picture-perfect family, Aimee opens up candidly about her long absent father and her hopes for the future – “it’s good to have dreams” she mutes amongst a table of people who have everything and live a superficial lie.

It is testimony to the excellence of the script that even when the credits roll we still haven’t quite worked out what Sutter Keely is all about. At times he is laughably dégagé, coasting through the final years of adolescence without regard for authority or family. He consistently mocks his teacher (Andre Royo, The Wire) for his half-hearted attempts to encourage his studies; and he unfairly lambasts his mother (Jennifer Jason-Leigh, eXistenZ) for giving him a hard time about his lack of respect – “no wonder Dad left you” he chirps as he breezes out the door. Yet we are often stunned by Sutter’s delicate flashes of genuine good-nature, like in the way he helps his best friend “finally get some action” before leaving for college, or when he offers to help Aimee with her mother’s paper-round despite being horribly hung over. All the bravado and his obsession with ‘living in the now’ leaves Sutter hollow and reaching for his hip-flask. Ponsoldt’s film improves drastically on similar high school flicks not only by its portrayal of Sutter’s alcoholism and how it rubs off on those closest to him, but also by giving poignant insight into how by over-protecting children, families can starve teenagers of sorely required life experience – Ponsoldt clearly emphasis’ a young person’s need for room to learn how to confront discomforting truths. In Sutter’s case, this is the myth of his father. The charismatic Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights fame plays Sutter’s father, Tommy in what is an award-worthy performance. Sutter and Aimee take a long road-trip together to ascertain the fate of Tommy, and we soon see why both Sutter’s mother and sister were determined to keep him away from the devastating truth.

What I loved about The Spectacular Now is the lack of the obvious revelatory moment that the protagonist decides to turn his life around. Sutter is fully aware of the person he has become and the effect he has on those who love him and try to help him. What we learn is that despite his many flaws, Sutter will not take any short cuts to become a better man. He understands that it is a complicated path and that he must find his own road before committing to one with another. Whether Aimee will be the person who ends up by his side is a question left dramatically unanswered. At its best the film is tender, perceptive and refreshingly genuine. So much so the occasional moment of melodrama can be forgiven. It is a film I want to show my teenage self and point out the things I find most important. I can’t do that but if I could I do think it would have a profound effect. Even as a thirty-something adult I find elements of this film that make me hopeful for the future. We can all learn something from Sutter and Aimee and the way they challenge the world put before them.

Ben Haller, 2013

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