Friday, September 6, 2013

The Spectacular Now

***1/2 out of ****

The Spectacular Now is a new coming-of-age teen drama. It is directed by James Ponsoldt, who made last year’s alcoholism-themed relationship drama Smashed. Working from the original novel by Tim Tharp, the screenplay is written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote the bitter-sweet 500 Days of Summer.

The movie follows a high school senior named Sutter, played by Miles Teller, who gave a great performance in the 2010 tragic drama Rabbit Hole. Sutter is a popular party-guy, who keeps a constant buzz going, drinking whenever possible and charming everyone with whom he is acquainted -including potential enemies. He’s a happy drunk who is clearly afraid of the emptiness that he may feel when sober. Academically and socially, he’s a goofball without a plan and has let his popular girlfriend, played by Brie Larson (starring in the upcoming Short Term 12), slip away from him in favor of a guy who is a little more serious about life.

The first thing that’s right about this film is that it’s about teenagers and has an “R” rating. Teen movies that withhold booze, drugs, sex and swearing may manage to be something entertaining but rarely do they capture the nature of that world. The second thing that’s right about this film is how it has the design of a cautionary story of teen alcoholism but refuses to dwell on the subject. It is appropriately portrayed as an element of the environment. The third thing that’s right about this film is how it has a simple teen romance formula that never manages to drown characters whose decisions work against our expectations.

Shailene Woodley, who played George Clooney’s troubled daughter in 2011’s The Descendants, is Aimee, a cute-yet-shy girl who is Sutter’s age. One morning, while preparing for her paper rout, she discovers Sutter passed out on her lawn. After waking up, Sutter talks her into letting him tag along while he searches for his car. With a little bit of conversation, he knows he has enchanted her and begins a relationship that is questionable. 

He clearly wants to gain the attention of the girl he lost through jealousy, but doesn’t want to hurt the new one. While introducing Aimee to the more popular scene, he feels the gratification he always gets from encouraging someone to open up and go for their desires. As she is smitten with him, she returns the favor by giving him life challenges, which he less willing to accept.

The only thing that seems wrong with this movie is how it lags at times, which is a problem that could have been solved with editing. This is a minor complaint, as clichés are dodged throughout the film through good direction and very good acting. I’m almost convinced that what makes this movie lag is that the acting is so good, that the film has the tendency to hold on its players and their natural behavior for too long in most scenes. There is a genuine sense of youth to be seen when you watch Teller and Woodley together or apart.

The supporting cast is just as flawless with Larson as the more grown-up ex, Dayo Okeniyi as her boyfriend, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s Mom, Kyle Chandler as his father, Bob Odenkirk as his boss at a men’s clothing store and the beautiful Mary Elizabeth Winstead (from Scott Pilgrim and Ponsoldt’s last film Smashed) as his older sister.

It’s hard for me to like movies about high school. They rarely resemble my experience during that time in my life –and this film certainly doesn’t either. What it ultimately does though, is remind me of people I knew at that time and it gets them completely right.

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