The Spectacular Now (2013, James Ponsoldt)
Go ahead and groan along with the rest of the world when you’re told to go and see yet another movie about a high school boy “finding himself” or whatever — this one a binge drinker who lets every relationship in his life, especially with his mother and brand new girlfriend, arrogantly pocket-veto itself into oblivion. You can’t likely be convinced that this teen movie is Different because it’s truly good-hearted, realistic, aesthetically lovely — especially when it’s known to have been tampered with by a studio after the fact. And yes, the overwhelmingly male perspective on what it means to really like Grow Up and shit is tired as tired can be. But it should nevertheless be known that The Spectacular Now is a special and surprisingly moving film, one whose ringing truths accumulate with the detail and grace of John Hughes or Cameron Crowe’s best work.
This film doesn’t do everything right by any means, and some of its biggest missteps are violations of its own potential. Shailene Woodley’s brilliant performance (comparing it with her other work shows she has a bracing level of versatility for such a young actor) masks a character who really deserves to be developed more strongly, whose inner life is suggested at first then collapses when the central relationship starts. Aimee begins as a refreshingly vivid and complicated soul, hardworking and unassuming, and the film doesn’t attempt to connect the dots, so to speak, with “quirk” — in some ways, she’s as real a creation as Mariel Hemingway’se Tracy in Manhattan, even if just as in that film a good deal of her existence is driven by the attempted redemption she provides to the men in the respective narratives. But as the film becomes increasingly the story of Sutter, this super-popular, fake fearless mixer who crashed on her lawn and doesn’t articulate the imbalance of power and presence between them, she does get lost.
To go onward with the complaints: imposed after Sundance, the writin’-an-essay framing device is silly Spanglish nonsense, even if not quite as distracting as many alleged. Both the “twist” of a nasty car accident and the will-she-won’t-she final scene are kind of cheap dramatic shortcuts, especially when the film seems to be driving toward a melancholy finale that could well have been incredibly touching. And finally, we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking the refreshing resistance the film shows to demonizing the “ex-girlfriend” character Cassidy played by Brie Larson (or any of its characters) excuses the relative flatness of its female inhabitants. They’re vivid enough people (at first blush) but the film is too reticent about exploring them, even with the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mom and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his exasperated sister. What else is new.
That said, this is truly one of the best films of its sort since Say Anything…, which it vividly recalls (Miles Tiller even physically resembles John Cusack), easily capturing that unconditional, limitless and warm possibility in an early love, or really in the beginnings of any good relationship. But it’s a much harder-hitting affair than its trailers suggest, crucially because it doesn’t trivialize the feelings of its characters or play them for laughs. It’s also leaps and bounds above something like Submarine, another irksomely male-centered coming-of-age story of recent vintage, because it senses the absurdity and desperation in Sutter’s life and mocks him lightly rather than letting the film be an exercise in teen-boy fantasy fulfillment.
Lovingly shot, beautifully scored and with real weight and emotional dimension, The Spectacular Now most remarkably of all just feels very, very real in the most wonderful sense — it’s not often you see a teen dramedy and can say that the natural and unfettered sex scene was one of the sweetest, most affecting moments — right down to the central revelation about Sutter’s dad and how it impacts the boy and his relationship. If you happen to be someone who knows an alcoholic — or has been one — it also hits staggeringly close to home. Though the film is mostly about Sutter struggling with his distance from other people, a major thrust in the narrative comes from his finally tracking down and connecting with his long-estranged father Tommy (Kyle Chandler). The movie doesn’t pull punches with the sheer pain and disappointment of this encounter, and it’s as difficult and honest as actually spending time with a parent who either drinks too much to care or just really truly doesn’t. Even if your sole point of analogy is that you have a poor relationship with a family member, something about this film and especially this particular sequence will likely haunt you.
Director James Ponsoldt takes cues from the likes of The Graduate for his wondrous, colorful widescreen compositions and bracing long takes that give us a chance to really live with the performances, uncut and undoctored. He achieves poignancy without pushing or prodding the audience. (More than one scene made me well up, especially a quietly heartbreaking workplace confrontation.) I objected to the pat finale, but I’m also not gonna lie: I wanted to cheer when Woodley came back on the screen, because that’s how much and how successfully the film makes you care about these people. I doubt it’s a happy ending anyway — it’s as likely as not that Aimee turns and walks from Sutter’s life forever in that moment — but it’s a moment of infinite potential, which in some way feels right and earned even if it is a little too easy.