Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now wants to be a new kind of teenage movie, the kind that not only doesn’t romanticize the high school years but instead puts them in relief against much more formidable challenges. Director James Ponsoldt (working from a novel by Tim Tharp) isn’t interested in the ecosystem of high school; these kids aren’t outcasts. Ponsoldt’s well-acted Spectacular Now (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote the screenplay) offers a clear-eyed message about not being afraid to look at one’s life. Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a senior best known for his partying and lack of social affectation. Sutter doesn’t have much of a plan for his life and isn’t crazy about the example set by either his single, working mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) or his social climbing sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Things bottom out when Sutter’s girlfriend (Brie Larson) dumps him, and it isn’t until he wakes up on the front lawn of Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) that Sutter’s life begins to turn around.

Sutter and Aimee do fall in love, and Teller and Woodley have an easy, relaxed chemistry with each other that makes it easy to believe that Aimee is just what Sutter has been waiting for. This is no ugly duckling story; Woodley plays Aimee not as emerging from a shell but rather as someone whose natural confidence has finally been noticed. Miles Teller gets Sutter’s swagger right, but I also like the way his half-formed features and expressive eyes betray the anxiety underneath,. As appealing as the two young leads are, it’s the darker undertones of their relationship that give The Spectacular Now some bite. Ponsoldt’s previous film was last year’s Smashed (with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in an award-caliber performance), the story of how both alcohol abuse and the subsequent recovery can erode a marriage. The Spectacular Now is subtler; Sutter is smooth enough to pull off a hip flask without getting sloppy even though his problem is obvious to everyone. What the new film gets right is the is the sense that Sutter is being eaten away from the inside by drink before his life even starts, and the way that he didn’t know the game was rigged. The missing piece in Sutter’s life is his father, whose whereabouts have been kept from him by the rest of his family. When Sutter finally does meet his Dad he is played by Kyle Chandler in a great, image-subverting cameo and he isn’t even close to what Sutter was expecting. As good as Chandler is it’s after his scenes that the movie takes a turn, as the focus shifts from Sutter and Aimee’s relationship to what is seen as the tragic inevitability of Sutter’s future. We lose track of Aimee and her college plans, and it turns out that she was primarily around to help Sutter figure things out.

For most of its running time The Spectacular Now is saddled with what I call the Ghost World problem. In that film the disaffected teens were smart enough to realize that college would represent a way out but passed on their future to serve the movie’s purposes. Something of the same thing is at work here; quite a lot depends on Sutter not embracing the future when graduation and a possible future with Aimee are in the offing. It is the movie’s refusal to honor that choice, or to suggest that Sutter will even be very good at anything as an adult - he’s not harboring any secret writing talent - that makes it unusual. Sutter may want to live in the now, but now he’s being pushed towards a future of bar stools unless he acts. The final scene is both hard-won and admirably open-ended, and the ironically titled The Spectacular Now turns out to be a movie about the necessity and not the joy of growing up.

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