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Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: The Spectacular Now (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Miles Teller, Shaileen Woodley

Now is what matters. The past is done and the future has too many variables, too many opportunities for disappointment, but now is as perfect as it is fleeting. "This is the youngest that we're ever going to be," the protagonist of The Spectacular Now states, nostalgic for the moment even as he's living it, aware that he's about to be forced to cross over to a new phase he feels ill-prepared for. A movie about teenagers that is refreshingly sincere and sensitive without being patronizing, James Ponsoldt's latest is one of the better films of its kind, even if it doesn't necessarily explore one of its main themes in full.

The Spectacular Now is about Sutter (Miles Teller), a charismatic high school senior whose alcoholism is ignored by himself and everyone around him because he's so seemingly functional. As the film opens he's been dumped by his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), and after a night of particularly hard partying he wakes up on someone's lawn, classmate Aimee (Shaileen Woodley) leaning over him. Although they run in different social circles and despite the fact that Sutter's interest in Aimee, at least at first, only seems to be "of the moment," the two become friends and then begin dating. The two bond over their dysfunctional families, with Aimee being trapped by her controlling mother, who demands that Aimee give up her opportunity to go away to college to stay home and take care of her, and Sutter being largely without parental presence in his life, as his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is always working and his father has been absent for years. With Sutter's encouragement, Aimee stands up to her mother and makes her intention of going to college clear, and with Aimee's encouragement Sutter pursues the question of his father's whereabouts, getting the information from his sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) after his mother refuses to give it to him.

After reaching his father by phone, Sutter and Aimee make a trip out to see him and, though the man they find (played wonderfully by Kyle Chandler) is disheveled and cagey, all Sutter can see is the idealized vision of his father, the man who could make friends anywhere and with anyone, that he's been nurturing since childhood. Sutter's father takes them to his local bar and it's only after he ditches them to go off with a woman he knows, leaving Sutter to pick up the tab, that Sutter begins to see him as he really is, as a man who chose alcohol over his family, and as a man that Sutter himself is on his way to becoming. As they drive home, Sutter rejects Aimee's attempts to comfort him and, having come to see himself as a danger to her, encourages her to forget about him. Spiraling in the wake of his experience with his father, Sutter is eventually forced to confront his demons but by the time he does so, it may be too late for his relationship with Aimee.

Considered in conjunction with Ponsoldt's 2012 film Smashed, The Spectacular Now feels like a spiritual prequel, with Sutter and Aimee suggesting the beginnings of Smashed's codependent alcoholic couple. Inexperienced when she meets Sutter, Aimee not only has her first relationship with him, but begins drinking with him as well, taking to it so much that by the end of the film it's second nature to her to pull out a flask on any occasion. Drinking becomes so integral to the fabric of their relationship that it's difficult to imagine the relationship existing without it, and part of the reason is that, whether Aimee is conscious of it or not, she realizes that she needs to meet Sutter on that level in order to secure his interest. In the beginning Sutter's attitude towards Aimee is more that he's doing her a favor by giving her attention than that he's genuinely interested in her romantically, and there's never really any suggestion that Sutter wouldn't drop Aimee if Cassidy wanted him back. Aimee is always more invested than Sutter, though for all that the film doesn't depict Sutter as a bad guy, which is to the film's credit. Sutter's a nice guy, everyone (even Cassidy and her new boyfriend) likes him, but he's someone who lives thoroughly in the moment and is not really great at follow through or dealing with consequences, which is why he can lavish Aimee with attention one day, and then spend the next several avoiding her and trying to outrun whatever promises he made.

The Spectacular Now understands its characters and, though it doesn't shy away from depicting their flaws, it also has a great deal of affection for them. Despite the sometimes hard subject matter, there's a lot of warmth to the film, both in terms of how Ponsoldt portrays the characters, viewing them from the perspective of the inside out rather than from the outside in, and in terms of how Teller and Woodley play them. That said, for a film in which alcohol plays a fairly significant role both in terms of plot and characterization, that theme doesn't feel resolved within the story. Granted that may be intentional since it would never be "resolved" as such for Sutter, but something that he would spend the rest of his life dealing with, but it seems a bit strange for the film to focus so much on the subject and then skirt over how Sutter actually deals with his problems (though, again, if you consider this film alongside Smashed and, from what I gather, Ponsoldt's debut feature Off the Black, it would seem that the director is making a career out of showing the different stages of alcoholism and recovery). Yet, even though it feels a little incomplete, The Spectacular Now is nevertheless a compelling character driven drama that hits just about every mark it aims for.


msmariah said...

This sounds like a movie that truly reflects real life. Sutter is like so many guys. I haven't heard of this movie, but I would like to see it.

Norma Desmond said...

It seems like it only got a small theatrical release, but it's newly available on DVD/streaming and definitely worth searching out.