Movie review: “The Spectacular Now”

spectacular now

The Spectacular Now

dir. James Ponsoldt

Release Date: Aug 09, 13

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It starts when Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) wakes up on Aimee Finecky’s (Shailene Woodley) lawn. It continues into cars, onto suburban streets, and around the world they know. It moves to parties, to the forests surrounding those parties, to the houses of their parents and their rooms within. It moves to their jobs, their school, and to that massive, nebulous place known as “the future,” that thing that teachers have warned them about but that always seemed like an impossible, intangible point, a horizon that can never be reached. It’s the beginning of adulthood, and in James Ponsoldt’s astounding film The Spectacular Now, it’s the scariest thing that can possibly happen, even as it’s simultaneously the most exhilarating.

Every high school is allotted one kid like Sutter, a kid who’s so convinced that there is no universe more immediate or more important than his that he’s the undisputed king of the mountain, and he’s hardly concerned that the mountain is getting smaller every day. His omnipresent Big Gulp-sized plastic cup is frequently splashed with a little something extra from his equally omnipresent flask, even when he’s at work, but Sutter’s still at that age where he’s considered a lively partier and not yet an alcoholic. Sutter’s life rotates off its axis when his A-list girlfriend (Brie Larson) leaves him for somebody more ambitious, the town talk of him as a joke finally starts to hit his own ears, and he realizes that burning the candle at both ends will at least cost him the chance to graduate on time and at most will end up stranding him in his town when everybody else leaves. To say that he realizes this, though, doesn’t mean that he reacts.

Aimee, on the surface, seems like the worst possible person that Sutter could find as a rebound, no matter how often he insists to friends that she’s more than that. She’s sweet and has a better handle on life than he does, but has clearly waited for some time to be drawn out of her shell. Sutter fits the bill perfectly in this regard, and so they wander through their town, sharing pulls on his flask and eventually on hers, Sutter sharing his philosophy that “this is the youngest we’ll ever be” and the importance of living in the now. And even as Aimee starts to realize that Sutter’s wild idealism comes with a battery of serious problems related to both his embattled mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his absent dad (Kyle Chandler), she’s so taken in by Sutter’s need for her that she ignores the omens and falls anyway.

The Spectacular Now is the sort of film that defines generations. Such a declaration is completely hyperbolic, to be sure, but it’s so engrained with the DNA of films like Say Anything or Dazed and Confused (both of which were promotionally shown in limited theatrical runs by A24, who released the picture) that it’s impossible to deny the film’s raw primacy. Ponsoldt immaculately nails down the dreamy listlessness of that post-high school summer, the one where you’re on the cusp of having to have some sort of plan and doing everything in your God-given power to avoid having to do so. There’s a silence that sits over the majority of the film, and even its biggest moments or grandest emotional revelations are muted and often unsaid, left to be internalized and filed away. The film also avoids either the detached bemusement at the dramas of teenage life or the amplification to the levels of Greek tragedy that so many movies about teenagers, even the great ones, sometimes fall into. Be certain of this: The Spectacular Now is a movie about teenagers, but it’s not a teen movie in the slightest.

The film’s screenplay, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber of (500) Days of Summer fame, is virtually perfect, letting the small moments between Sutter and Aimee take as long as absolutely necessary while stopping short of letting the event-heavy third act interfere with the film’s gentle rhythms. The real magic of the film, though, lies in Teller and Woodley’s hands. Their performances are so biting and so nuanced that it’s hard to imagine two actors more perfectly cast. Teller cuts to the heart of the Vince Vaughn cutouts he’s played in lesser movies over the past few years, Woodley lends Aimee a coy sexuality that makes her vulnerable arc over the course of the film all the more brutal to watch, and together they make for a film full of unforgettable moments. From their honest, mildly awkward first sexual experience to their explosive moments of connection and collapse, The Spectacular Now simply steps back and lets them live their lives, observing what happens when two people don’t necessarily so much fall in love as latch onto each other for dear life in anticipation of what’s coming next.