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Josh Reviews The Spectacular Now

I am a sucker for a good coming of age story, and this season has seen a couple of excellent ones.  I was over the moon about The Way Way Back (click here for my review) and I was equally smitten by James Ponsoldt’s new film The Spectacular Now.  It’s a beautiful, powerful story about two young people finding themselves in the closing days of their high school years.

In the film, Miles Teller plays Sutter.  He’s a good looking, fast-talking, confident high school senior.  Sutter is the king of his high school hill.  He’s a popular guy with a pretty girlfriend.  He loves to party and to have a good time, and he’s never really thought about aspiring to anything beyond that.  But when his girlfriend breaks up with him, Sutter finds it harder than he’d expected for his nothing-can-bother-me, it’s-all-good attitude to keep out the pain.  Suddenly his hardy-partying ways seem less like the antics of a fun-loving high school kid and more like a crutch.  It’s after one-such night of drinking that Sutter finds himself passed out on the lawn of his classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley).  Aimee is sweet and kind and smart, and as something of a bookworm she is not at all in Sutter’s social circle.  The two begin an unexpected friendship, and soon — to surprise of both of their sets of friends — they begin dating.

From that point, I was expecting the film to go in one of two directions.  Either we’d get the story of the special girl who makes the boy into a better man, or the story of the innocent girl who is seduced by the appeal of the bad egg, almost allowing him to ruin her life before she sees the error of her ways.  But The Spectacular Now, luckily, is a much more nuanced film than that. The film doesn’t go down such expected directions, and though there are aspects of both of those ideas I just mentioned in the film’s story, the heart of the film lies in the many, often unexpected ways in which Sutter and Aimee affect one another.  Some of those changes are positive, while others are more up for debate, and the film is surprisingly deft at not drawing judgments and allowing the audience to make their own evaluations.  (I am thinking specifically of the way Aimee starts drinking once she begins seeing Sutter.  I was all ready for that to lead her down a dark road, and while there is not question that there are some ways in which she is negatively affected by her new taste for alcohol, the film has a more nuanced perspective on her new habit, allowing the audience to decide how we feel about it.)

Both young actors, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, are fantastic.  I don’t believe I had seen any of Mr. Teller’s previous films, though of course I saw Ms. Woodley in The Descendants (click here for my review), the film in which she very justifiably caught the favor of many critics.  I was imprested by the nuance that both performers brought to their characters.  Both the “bad boy” and the “good girl” turn out to be far more complex than you often see in films.  There are some strong supporting players — Brie Larson (whose work I was just praising last week when writing about Don Jon) is great as Sutter’s ex-girlfriend, and Bob Odenkirk is impressive in a subdued role as Sutter’s boss in his part-time job.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead (so wonderful in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Jennifer Jason Leigh are also solid, and Kyle Chandler knocks it out of the park in a late-in-the-film appearance as Sutter’s absentee dad.  But really, this film belongs to Mr. Teller and Ms. Woodley, and they are extremely impressive.  I love their chemistry.

The Spectacular Now is a quiet film.  It wisely avoids the usual narrative directions these sorts of stories take, choosing instead to create a more delicate, unpredictable examination of these two characters.  It’s a film that I was sorry to see end, because I’d love to spend more time with these characters.  Watching the film unfold, I wondered where exactly it would end.  I can imagine that this story was a hard one to find the right ending for, because how can you create a satisfying end to your movie without moving away from the film’s naturalistic style to craft a more movie-sequence conclusion?  I think the film finds a fine solution to that dilemma and I was very satisfied with the ending.  However, as I commented a moment ago, when the credits rolled I was sorry not to get to see what happened next!  I wanted to know what happened next for Sutter and Aimee!  This is a compliment towards the filmmakers, not a criticism.

I was quite taken by The Spectacular Now.  The film finds a captivating tone of gentle sweetness without pulling any punches or avoiding some very difficult moments in the lives of these characters.  It’s a film I look forward to revisiting.  I encourage you to track it down and check it out.

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