The Spectacular Now (REVIEW)
Coming of age films are becoming increasingly grim and unsettling. Perhaps its a sign of the times and a window into this current generation. The Spectacular Now is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s an independent drama that has a refreshing approach to a familiar genre: the high school film. The good times, carefree nature of high school and being a student is not glorified or exploited, instead it is the downfall of our protagonist, Sutter, played energetically and convincingly by Miles Teller.
Sutter, along with the film’s cast and characters, is very likable. Despite his downfall of seemingly being a functioning alcoholic at the age of eighteen, you find yourself rooting for him. Writing this review, I’m reminded of Short Term 12, another coming of age film with similar themes (and two of the same cast members). The Spectacular Now is not a film that attempts to break any new ground thematically or narratively. Its non attempt to be anything else but a character study makes it all the more likable. This is a straightforward film about a young man on the verge of change.
Sutter finds himself, as self described, the life of every party. He works, drives, speaks to friends, and sits in his room with a fast food cup spiked with liquor. The fast food cup almost seems attached to his body, and makes an appearance in almost half the scenes. And when the cup isn’t available, he goes in for his flask.
Sutter is less interested in education but more so the people that fill the halls. In one scene, at prom, he looks on at the dance floor, filled with his fellow classmates. He stares longingly, and yells out “I love all of you!” Its a startling scene and a revealing one, where the audience learns Sutter’s extreme refusal to move on from high school. He questions one teacher “I don’t see why I should graduate. You’re an adult. Are you happy?”
Shailene Woodley plays Aimee, an innocent and unpopular girl who largely keeps to herself. She’s not accustomed to heavy drinking or men. When Aimee and Sutter meet for the first time in the film, Sutter doesn’t recognize her and struggles to remember her name. The two quickly become close with a sexual tension accompanying their time together. Woodley was able to flaunt her skills as a talented actress in 2010’s The Descendants. Here, her performance is more subtle but if anything, her most impressive. Aimee is mousy, embarrassed constantly, and lacks experience. We learn a great deal about her innocence in an early scene at her home, where she explains to Sutter her love of manga (Japanese comic books).
The interactions between Aimee and Sutter are particularly realistic. At first, Aimee shrinks amongst Sutter’s confidence and experience, embarrassingly laughing off any compliment he may throw her way. It’s hard not be reminded of our own awkward high school experiences, when a film like this is so good at replicating them.
Like Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now relies heavily on it’s cast. Here again, are the performances consistently superb and sincere, making the emotions run high for the audience. Miles Teller commands the screen with ease, accompanied by great screen presence and charisma. To see an actor you’re not familiar with carry a film so perfectly is a delight. Short Term 12′s Brie Larson also has a big part, as Sutter’s ex girlfriend, Cassidy. There are scenes between the two, in discussing their relationship that is so realistic, it’s distressing. There is a moment where Cassidy sits on her bed with Sutter. She digs her head into her hands and knees and tearfully asks him to leave. Larson’s reaction is so intense and realistic, it will likely have you flashing back to your own failed relationships.
It is unexpected to see an independent film as well directed as The Spectacular Now is. Shot on crisp 35mm in the 2.35: 1 ratio, the film runs dark with perfect contrast. Rare is it that you see carefully composed frames and two shots; actors filling the screen with no cuts or edits, allowing their performances to breathe. This tactic is withdrawn but all the more cinematic. It allows the audience to decide for themselves what they want to look at; who specifically may be catching their eye in the frame. I’m reminded how much I miss this aesthetic and how well it works.
Sutter, like many characters in todays coming of age films, is in the midst of a broken home. You’d be hard pressed to find a drama about a teenager that doesn’t explore this normality in today’s culture. There’s a strong buildup to when we meet Sutter’s father for the first time in the film. Sutter’s mother and sister warn him against the idea of going to see him without revealing their reasons why. Drugs, alcohol, family would all be expected themes to explain his absence in Sutter’s life. When our protagonist finally decides to see his father for the first time in years, it very quickly becomes a startling moment because of it’s simplicity. There are no drugs. There is no alcohol abuse. There isn’t another family. Sometimes selfishness is enough to drive us.
The film ends where it begins, with Sutter writing a college essay, a voiceover accompanying his typing, indicating what he’s learned throughout the film. It is perhaps, the only weak moment in the movie, coming across as dense and lazy. The audience is smart enough to do the math; we don’t need Sutter holding our hand. It’s the simplicity, cleverness, honesty, and earnestness of The Spectacular Now that makes it work so well.
THREE AND A HALF STARS
1 STAR (POOR) 2 STAR (FAIR) 3 STAR (VERY GOOD) 4 STAR (EXCELLENT)