Review: The Spectacular Now (Ponsoldt, 2013)

Still from the movie The Spectacular Now

James Ponsoldt returns to Sundance with another film about lushes. No, I’m making light, but it is kind of true. His previous film was Smashed, and The Spectacular Now, starring the talented Miles Teller and the reviled (by me) Shailene Woodley, is also about a young alcoholic. Considerably younger, though. Sutter Keely, the film’s protagonist, is eighteen and the kind of goof-off class clown of a senior most of us remember from our high school days and either loved or hated but were probably at least a little entertained by. Besides being an alcoholic, he’s also busy flunking classes, chasing girls, and disparaging his broken family. One day, he meets Aimee Finecky (Woodley), his polar opposite: an awkward sci-fi nerd who’s clearly excited to even be noticed by Sutter. They begin an unlikely friendship.

After the first half hour of viewing, I thought, “Wait, is this just a more penetrating and intelligent remake of She’s All That?” Well, not exactly. It’s certainly more realistic.

I think I mentioned this before, but I love high school movies. The question is, do they capture that ineffable something that just screams adolescence? Several people I know (younger than me and hence closer to that period in their lives) have praised this film for feeling authentically high school. “It really depicts how young people talk, you know? How they are with each other?” My husband and I debated afterward whether or not the praise was deserved. He thought the interactions in the film lacked a certain play-acting (or role-playing?) he remembers from that age. I thought it was better than most, but maybe I’ve just forgotten what it was like back then. You see, my theory is that these movies are by necessity made by adults, and adults are so far removed from that age that it’s difficult for them to recreate the depth of insecurity, innocence, and inanity from that time; they just plain don’t remember it anymore. Teenagers, on the other hand, are a horrible judge of the film’s authenticity because they’re too close to see themselves accurately. In the end, the film displays how we adults remember adolescence, which is how we saw it back then, all romantic and meaningful and full of wise words, which is of course wrong. (You have only to watch real teenagers behaving to see the difference between how it looks and how it must have felt.)

Elements of the plot feel very done, very stereotyped. The interactions between Sutter’s family, for example. A little fresher is the relationship between Sutter and Aimee. It could have easily gone in a certain direction, and it seemed like it was going to, but then it didn’t, and I was relieved. (But then it kind of did anyway.) Even the fact that a character like Aimee exists (thank God Shailene Woodley is actually competent at playing an ordinary teenage girl who says ordinary teenage things) is a mark in the film’s favor. While it’s always satisfying to the feminist in me to see a young girl stand up for her dignity, that’s just not how most of us are. We fawn over guys who don’t seem that interested in us, and we might do it quietly and a bit heroically. While I didn’t know anyone like Aimee growing up–Aimee is her own person–I believe her. She’s just her age.

And Miles Teller is fantastic. It’s not for nothing that he won this movie the Sundance Special Jury Prize for acting.

Well, you can see I’m a bit all over the place in this review. Final words? I enjoyed The Spectacular Now and anticipate lining up in the cold for Sundance 2015’s Ponsoldt boozer movie.