Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Spectacular Now (2013) – Review

Review: The Spectacular Now is a charming, yet affecting teen drama that escapes the typical genre troupes. The film is about a high school senior Sutter who, living in the shadow of growing up with an absent father, seemingly is content to just live in the moment with no thought for the future. After his girlfriend leaves him due to his attitude towards life, Sutter meets Aimee, a nice-girl who lives what could be called a sheltered life. Though they are quite different, they quickly form a kindred bond. The question is: can Sutter grow into the man Aimee deserves or is he just using her in the moment?

Something that is immediately noticeable in director James Ponsoldt’s film is Sutter’s apparent rampant alcoholism. He is high functioning enough to coast through life perpetually buzzed. But what is interesting in the film is that no one seems to really be that concerned. Either Sutter has been written off as ever being a productive member of the community (which is a sad statement about how society often views individuals with substance abuse issues) or everyone else in Sutter’s life is too focused on their own stuff to really notice. There is probably a little bit of both at play – plus, his generally inebriated state is such a part of his personality that it is just accepted as being normal, which speaks to how alcoholism is very often pushed to the dark corners within society, a dark secret that no one wants to talk about until something drastically goes wrong.

What is most striking/shocking is that Sutter’s relationship with Aimee seems to greatly benefit him in terms of his own personal growth, and yet she also enables him and his bad habits. Essentially, Sutter starts out treating Aimee as a backup plan and encourages her to drink as heavily as he does (which is alarming, especially in her compliance). She is different than the girls Sutter has typically dated. She is completely innocent and kind, without any snark or cynicism (which in itself is refreshing). She needs him, in a sense, and that gives him a sense of purpose that he likes. They help each other emotionally (he helps her stand up to her mom, and she helps him come to terms with who his father really is). But, Aimee also lives in a fantasy world and cannot see Sutter for who he really is, a deeply troubled young man who is struggling to keep it together. She does not call him on his drinking or on how he is fairly dismissive of her (in that it is clear that he still wants to be with Cassidy, his ex-girlfriend). She never directly challenges him to become the man she deserves, rather she seems to settle for the disaster that he is because she has been alone until she meets him (and thus he has become her whole world – as is often the case with first loves, or love in general). While Aimee allows Sutter to feel a sense of purpose that has been lacking in his life, she is still complicit in his self-destructive behaviors. But the audience is right there with her – Sutter is utterly charming. It is easy to dismiss the cliff he is teetering on.

However, this is one of the strongest narrative aspects of the film. Aimee is not some whimsical fantasy girl (the ‘manic pixie dream-girl’) who knocks Sutter out of his stupor with her cute strangeness. She is just a shy girl who has thrown herself (a bit haphazardly) into her first relationship. Though, she has probably come out of it stronger. Sutter must decide to change on his own, for him not for her. In this way, the film works much more as a character drama than a teen romance, which is why it is ultimately so effective dramatically. Ponsoldt is much more interested in the dramatic arcs of Sutter and Aimee than hitting all the typical romantic comedy notes (though, they film does have a fairly standard structure). Aimee is the catalyst that shakes things up by actually deeply caring about him, but the heavy lifting has to be done by Sutter (addressing his alcoholism and his father issues).

Another aspect of the film that works very well is Ponsoldt’s directing. He clearly values the characters above everything else – their emotional moments, struggles, moments of joy, and so on. Thus, the film is very stripped down stylistically. Ponsoldt basically just allows the performances (which are very strong) to play without really using the camera to add additional meaning or depth. That is not to say that his placement of the camera does not add something, because it does and the framing is often very good, but the camera does not seem to play an influential or dramatic role in the perception or interpretation of the characters. Again, Ponsoldt leaves that to the actors and their wonderful work. The lighting and production design also adds a lot to this stylistic choice, as everything feels very realistic and intimate.

Teen dramas and romances often fall into the trap of being very formulaic, but The Spectacular Now breaths a much needed breath of fresh air into the genre (much like last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower). It does not shy away from powerful dramatic moments and ultimately tells a meaningful story of a young man who is lost that finds his way, utilizing genuine emotions and dynamic, dramatically engaging characters.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: James Ponsoldt seems to certainly have an interest in telling stories about how alcoholism ruins lives, but in a hopeful manner as his characters emerge on the other side better off in the end. The Spectacular Now is not as focused on alcoholism as his last feature Smashed (though both exhibit very strong performances from their leads). For Sutter, his drinking is a symptom more so of his issues with his mother and father resulting from his father not being there. What scares me about the film, and what I found so powerful, is that his drinking is just a part of who he is in the eyes of his friends, family, and teachers. No one tries to help him. It speaks to how we are all often complicit in the bad and damaging habits of others, turning a blind eye in lieu of confrontation. Also, that is not the story Ponsoldt wanted to tell with this film. This is much more about Sutter growing up, and the same can be said for Aimee too. I really look forward to seeing what Ponsoldt does next as he is a great emerging talent who took a big step forward with this film.

Aesthetically, The Spectacular Now has an extremely intimate feel (showcased in Sutter and Aimee’s love scene) with the score, lighting, directing, and design all presenting the narrative in a very realistic manner. Composer Rob Simonsen’s score feels delicate as it plays a supporting role to the dramatic moments, never stepping on the performances. The soundtrack is also strong and fits well. Jess Hall’s cinematography is wonderful. It has a beauty to it, often using very soft and natural light. Linda Sena’s production design is also very good, creating a world that both feels very real but also speaks to who these characters are (especially in the juxtaposition of their bedrooms).

The performances carry this film. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bob Odenkirk, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are all good in small supporting roles. Kyle Chandler is fantastic in his small role as Sutter’s father, playing completely off-type. Brie Larson is also great as Cassidy, bringing a lot to what would have been a throwaway role in most films. However, the film is primarily a showcase for Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Teller gives a breakthrough performance as Sutter. He is completely likably, when he probably should not be. He also carries Sutter’s internal pain wonderfully. He hides it, pushing it deep down, by being fun and upbeat, but the audience can see the toil it is taking. It is one of 2013’s great performances. Woodley plays a character that feels like she is from a generation long past, and in that way has a nostalgic charm. Aimee has not been disillusioned by the world, and probably never will be. Her innocence is not so much a statement on her inexperience, but a testament to the sweetness of her spirit and kindness of her heart. Building off her great work in The Descendants, Woodley is really establishing herself as an elite young talent.

Summary & score: The Spectacular Now is an excellent character drama, built on the brilliant performances from its cast, especially Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. 8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment