Reviewed by Ian Forbes
Getting out of high school without a broken heart seems contrary to the norm (especially if you believe all the movies about the subject). Doing that while having an alcoholic father run out on your family and falling for a girl whose own father is out of the picture and whose social circles are far more limited than your own is just the specific situation for Sutter Keely, the main character in The Spectacular Now.
Played by Miles Teller, Sutter is a popular kid at his high school. He’s the life of the party, seen as a bit of a joke by his classmates, but too wrapped up in being Mr. Cool and sipping on hard liquor from his flask to see that living in the now may mean that high school could be the end of that fun ride if he doesn’t start changing things. Coming off a break-up with Cassidy (Brie Larson), whom he believed was the perfect girl, Sutter finds himself getting to know Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She isn’t on the same social radar as him but is one of those girls who doesn’t realize how beautiful she is; her intelligence, kindness, and naïveté take him by surprise. They create confidence within each other to face up to their respective mothers so they can move forward with life after high school. But at the same time, Sutter’s lingering feelings for Cassidy and inability to understand what he has with Aimee, coupled with her blind acceptance of his antics because he’s her first boyfriend, creates a cacophony of emotions which may be all too relatable for audiences.
I certainly connected with the film and it sparked some soul searching and reignited emotions and memories I tend to keep buried just below the surface. There were some scenes that felt lifted from my own brain, thanks to screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (adapting Tim Tharp’s novel), complete with dialogue so personal it at times seemed like a dream I would surely wake from shortly – because that’s the thing you do right before you get to the end of an imagined conversation with an important person when you’re snoring up a storm alone in your bed.
Personal identification aside, what director James Ponsoldt has done is take this intimate screenplay, combine it with a well-chosen cast, and create one of the most unexpected and welcome surprises of 2013. There’s been quite a bit of buzz about Woodley’s performance, as critical eyes had been waiting to see what followed after her excellent turn in The Descendants, and it’s deserved attention. While Teller does a great job overall, there are one or two scenes where his performance rings slightly hollow. Woodley, however, absolutely nails this part and remains affectingly vulnerable at all times; it’s an idealized version of a girl many of us fell in love with in high school and refuse to let go of but I’m willing to stick with the delusion if only to feed my own psyche.
Not to be forgotten in the acting kudos are Brie Larson and Kyle Chandler. Her character has to walk a fine line and Larson does so with grace and sincerity. A scene between Cassidy and Sutter where she realizes what it was about him that initiated the break-up is handled beautifully by the actors and Ponsoldt’s choice to shoot some of the more difficult elements in a wider shot pays off in spades. Playing Sutter’s father, Chandler brings the character to life superbly and Sutter is forced to realize the difference between the father as a real person and the rhapsodized image of that man.
All of these kind words aren’t to say the film does everything right. I haven’t read the book yet (just downloaded on my Kindle though) but the ending presented in the film is severely problematic. That’s partially due to heavily borrowing from Good Will Hunting, with a dash of Garden State thrown in, but also because the script takes so much time to develop Sutter and Aimee that wrapping things up so quickly is contrary to the rest of the movie. Some may feel things aren’t completely resolved but it’s pretty clear what the intention is; it’s up to the individual to determine how it will play out over time (a concept I don’t mind but some people don’t prefer).
It also would have been nice if the Sutter being presented on-screen matched up a bit better to the Sutter his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) describes in a heartfelt scene towards the end. I can see shades of the person she’s talking about but it’s not quite who the audience had been exposed to for an hour and a half. It may even make some sense that her perspective is skewed but considering the importance of the moment, it still felt a bit out of sync – despite the tangible emotion.
All that being said, I think you can tell that I would recommend the movie regardless of those flaws … some of which are a by-product of being a cynical film critic. The Spectacular Now hit a raw nerve inside myself, and even if the characters don’t do the same for general audiences, the story is so universal that it’s bound to connect with you in some fashion. The performances are excellent and while the overall film isn’t quite as polished as last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower or 2009’s (500) Days of Summer (written by the same screenwriters), your enjoyment of either gives you a clear idea if this might also be up your alley.
The Spectacular Now is rated R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality – all involving teens.
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