Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Spectacular Now

It might take a few beats to soak up what an accomplishment the new indie film The Spectacular Now really is.  Rooted in the familiar set up of lost teenagers coming of age, it tells its story gingerly but simply.  It courses a well-trodden path, and nearly in refusing to neither subvert nor flair with stylistic excess, the film feels real, delicate and graceful.  There's nothing flashy about The Spectacular Now, which was directed by James Ponstoldt (who made the twelve steps totem Smashed last year) and written by the (500) Days of Summer screenwriting team Scott Neustradter and Michael H. Weber.  Yet it's one of the most perceptive and emotionally intelligent film about teenagers to come around in quite a while.  Its seeming conventionality wears off sometime after viewing (at least it did for me) and settles into something a bit deeper-- a real world sense discovery of the great unknown that everyone faces as they make their journey into adulthood.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) could be read as a cautionary tale.  A product of troubled marriage, whose well-intentioned but most absent single mother is busy providing away, he's a strong drinker and reckless youth seemingly on a road to nowhere.  Sutter touts his living in the moment like a personal mantra, but it's really more of a defense mechanism-- There's been countless after school specials and very-special-episodes of adolescents just like him, but the film is more potent and assured to make his case a prolonged PSA of angst gone wild teenagers.  Yet the film takes a different and more complicated approach, as Sutter, a high school senior, is also sharp as a tick with a confident sheen wrapped around nerdy and vulnerable interior; he's lost but he's fooled himself into a false sense of enlightenment.  Teller, in a revelatory performance, he strikes as a younger Robert Downey, Jr.-- with his motor-mouthed volcano of wit seemingly ready to pop and explode with the sense of real danger.

Teenage mischief finds him passed on a strangers lawn, only to be found by Amiee Finicky (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants), a classmate he's never met before, but whose fully aware of him and his reputation.  Sutter and Aimee form a bond, one that's complicated and refreshing in its ambiguity but fleshed out by the sensitivity of the filmmakers and performers-- the great credit of The Spectacular Now is that the romance/friendship/question mark relationship between Sutter and Aimee feels so sharply observed and honest in its development; it helps that Teller and Woodley have such a natural rapport.  For Sutter is introduced on the rebound after his last girlfriend (played by Brie Larson) has dumped him in the first step of reforming her former party girl self and Aimee is a shy and sweet "good girl" wallflower whose enamored merely by his attention.

It's never entirely made clear whether Sutter has genuine feelings for Aimee or if he's just using her, but the film in it's clear and crisp way presents a very real world view and respect towards its main characters; they are high school.  And while the film glosses over the very special moments of senior year-- like prom and graduation-- it's the small and more delicate beats that Ponsoldt is more invested in that drive The Spectacular Now into something more meaningful and special.  And while themes of sexuality, alcohol abuse, parental abandonment and alienation inform the characters and their surroundings, the film subtly and honestly treads them without the need for violins to be playing the background clubbing it's audience.  B+

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