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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: The Spectacular Now

The "coming of age" film isn't usually one of my favorite genres. Sure there are a few highlights that stick with me: "Dazed and Confused", "The Breakfast Club", "Say Anything", even "Superbad". For the most part though, they usually resemble something more like the dreadful "The Way Way Back" from earlier this summer: Overly forced scenarios that resemble little of the teenaged experience that I only left behind a little over a decade ago. It's difficult to connect to these characters when the presentation feels so foreign. Sure, I enjoyed "The Perks of Being A Wallflower", but was your high school experience that exciting and filled with that many fascinating people? Mine either. James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" tones down the "center of the universe" trumpeting for a more grounded approach and succeeds as a different take on this overtrod sub-genre, at least when its not trying to become an intervention. 

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a tremendously popular Senior at his high school who has seemingly "peaked". He so clearly doesn't want his teenaged existence to end that he's failing his geometry class that he needs in order to graduate. Despite his outwardly positive exterior that provides advice to both friend and rival alike, Sutter is a deeply tormented individual. He drinks from a flask non-stop and struggles with a strained relationship with his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a distant one with his well-to-do sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). All of these elements play together in the ruination of his relationship with ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), of which, he is tortured by. Promptly, his life takes a turn, when he is discovered passed-out on someone's lawn by Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley). Despite their differing paths socially and academically, they connect for a briefly platonic and then more amorous relationship; first kiss, sex, prom, all the usual trappings, with them both challenging one another to detour a bit from their usual routine. Then, Sutter finally decides to contact his father (Kyle Chandler) who has been absent for most of his life, from there, everything changes.

"The Spectacular Now" is a film that is two-thirds a breath of fresh air, and one-third a proselytizing chore. The film is at its strongest when it veers towards authenticity. When Sutter realizes his attraction to Aimee, it isn't because of some kind of grand makeover that turns the bookish shy girl into an "acceptable beauty". Instead this turn-about is all in Sutter's change of perception. When his best friend questions why he would be with someone like Aimee, Sutter's responds that (paraphrasing) "once you really look at her, you'll get it". Their relationship is the film's heart and soul, and at no point does it feel false or strained, particularly in its opening beats. Ponsoldt's take on some familiar tropes are the areas in which "The Spectacular Now" works best, it's when it enters into darker territory that it begins to become troubled.

Sutter is a bit of a lush, but a likeable one that oozes enough charm that brings everyone on board to his way of thinking. Even jealous boyfriends find themselves saying to him "you're not the joke everyone thinks you are". Aimee is a shut-in, that enjoys reading science fiction and manga, with a mother that takes advantage of her good nature by making her work to pay the bills while she goes to the casino with Aimee's step-father. There's a gentle beauty to how these characters are framed and rather than the broad strokes that you might see in most films of its type, the subtlety herein is very welcome. There's a good deal of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe influence in what Ponsoldt is aiming for (along with his screenwriters, who also penned 500 Days of Summer), and that kind of striving towards greater verisimilitude deserves plaudits.

Most of the credit for what works best in terms of character work has to be given to the two leads, who are terrific. Teller plays Sutter as a sort of next generation John Cusack. When an actor portrays a character in a way that leads a viewer to think, "hey I knew that guy!", he's doing something right. It's a star-making performance, balancing melancholy with swagger. For as good as Teller is, Woodley may be even better in a slightly understated capacity. You can track her growing self-confidence and potential co-dependency as her relationship with Sutter deepens (though admittedly it's hard to envision someone as attractive as Woodley as a social outcast of any kind). The rest of the cast is filled with a who's who of under-appreciated players including Chandler, Winstead, Leigh, Bob Odenkirk (in a rare dramatic turn) as Sutter's employer and pseudo-father figure and Andre Royo as his Geometry teacher (and also advice giving paternal stand-in). The cast is tremendous and does alot of the heavy-lifting even when the script occasionally may sag.

The film does lose something when Chandler's father character is brought into the picture, less so because of anything related to performance, and more because of the finger-pointing that occurs thereafter. Instead of the culmination of a promising love story, the script veers into a look at alcoholism and the damage it can cause for those that fall into its grasp. This section of the story falls into cliched territory and the lighter realism that preceded it begins to falter. If a filmmaker is going to tackle such heavy material, said filmmaker needs to be able to provide complex answers that go beyond the simple presentation that points a finger at genetics instead of personal choice, such a stance is too pat, and cheapens a rich experience. This third act turn also highlights a poor framing device that belongs to a far lesser film.

Despite a troubling misstep in its latter segment, "The Spectacular Now" is a smart and, at times, touching film that displays a sense of intelligence and craft that most films of this type lack. There is no gross-out humor or sex jokes providing cheap laughs, and the characters feel as authentic as something pulled out of a teenager's memoirs rather than a slick Hollywood script. If Ponsoldt can concentrate on his strengths in his next outing, and avoid the melodrama, he may have a classic on his hands. In truth, he came fairly close with "The Spectacular Now", but its faults are unfortunately a little too dominating by its close. If nothing else, I found Sutter and Aimee very memorable, and am still thinking about them a day later, this can only work in this film's favor in retrospect.

I give it a B+

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