Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 25 April 2013
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston
If you have been - or are currently — a teenager, you may very well have met a kid like The Spectacular Now’s Sutter Keely. Brash, loud, and quick to declare himself the life of the party, he’s in full force when the film begins, recounting how his quest to get his friend Ricky “some action” apparently led Sutter to a break-up with his girlfriend, Cassidy. If this were a different, more conventional, movie, it would probably continue in this same vein, focusing on Sutter’s hijinx with Ricky and his quest to win Cassidy back. But director James Ponsoldt isn’t interested in glorifying a teenage party animal. Instead, he uncovers the big-hearted, unhappy kid behind Sutter’s Dionysian persona, and he does it without turning his film into an afterschool special.
The story changes course when Sutter wakes up from a night of debauchery, mysteriously separated from his car. His quiet and extraordinarily sweet classmate Aimee, who usually sits the local parties out, discovers him sprawled on a lawn, and the two become surprisingly fast friends. The film doesn’t turn gooey when that friendship becomes a courtship, partly because Sutter seems to think that he’s still trying to win Cassidy back, but mostly because Ponsoldt gets some little moments (like Sutter deciding to buy and read Aimee’s favorite manga) and some big moments (including a spontaneous first kiss) just right.
Yet as a love story, The Spectacular Now is more complicated than it first appears. Yes, Sutter admirably urges Aimee to stand up to her controlling mother and pursue a better future, and in some regards, we see her start to blossom. But Sutter is also a kid who is constantly, worryingly sipping from a flask or a spiked cup of soda. He says that his father, who has since left the family, gave him his first sips of beer when he was six, and it’s clear to us that Sutter is now an alcoholic. As he and Aimee continue to date, she starts drinking too, and when Sutter gives her a personalized flask of her own before prom, it’s funny but also deeply sad.
Aimee is an academically gifted dreamer, while Sutter is caught, as his boss says, “in neutral,” uncertain about his plans, occasionally pecking at a probably long-overdue college essay, but mostly avoiding any thoughts of the future. At one point, Sutter selects Faron Young’s “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young” on a jukebox, and he seems to think that the song offers a viable blueprint for life. Sutter is headed for a literal and figurative crash, and as much as we don’t want to see that, we also don’t want him take Aimee down with him.
Some of the above may look, on paper, like a kind of public service announcement, but Ponsoldt and 500 Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adapting a novel by Tim Tharp) do their best to sidestep the heavy moralizing that could have derailed the film. They also have the advantage of a really gifted cast, including Shailene Woodley of The Descendents as Aimee, and Miles Teller as Sutter. Woodley and Teller have remarkable chemistry, and they sound like authentic teenagers — rather than jaded screenwriters — when they speak. Both actors are up to the task of handling comic scenes and much heavier moments.
Teller has some noticeable scars from a real-life car accident, and they aren’t hidden with makeup here. Instead they serve to subtly underscore Sutter’s self-destructive streak by hinting at past scrapes, and they also help to heighten the film’s sense of realism. During his Q&A session after The Spectacular Now’s opening night screening at IFFB, Ponsoldt emphasized his intention of presenting more realistic teenagers than those found in Twilight or American Pie, and that a (relative) lack of gloss really does do wonders.
The film’s supporting cast is also marvelous, with many of the actors making vivid impressions in only a handful of scenes. Kyle Chandler avoids overplaying Sutter’s absentee dad, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent as Sutter’s exhausted single mom who works as a nurse. There are also great thumbnail sketches from Bob Odenkirk as Sutter’s boss, Andre Royo as his math teacher, and Masam Holden as his friend Ricky, though my favorite of all may be Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who also starred in Ponsoldt’s feature Smashed) as Sutter’s big sister Holly. Winstead tells us half of what we need to know about Holly just by the way she daintily fusses over a few flowers in her backyard. These performances are so strong that we occasionally wish we could spend a bit more time enjoying each of them, but in the end, the story doesn’t belong to these characters. Indeed, one of the largely unspoken tragedies of the film is the fact that Sutter seems to be surrounded by a lot of good, caring people who aren’t at all sure how to help him.
As good as the movie is, there is one somewhat unrealistic plot development near its conclusion, and viewers may be divided on whether The Spectacular Now is too pessimistic, or conversely, whether it lets its characters off too lightly. But ultimately, the film works to maintain a very delicate balance between despair and hope, and it largely succeeds. It gives us characters to care about and believe in, and along with some other recent films concerning high schoolers — including Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower — it reminds us that movies about teenagers aren’t necessarily just for teenagers, and that the kids themselves deserve more honest, compassionate movies like this one.
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