Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Movie Review: The Spectacular Now



Meet Sutter, a high school senior who is master of his domain. He's popular, charismatic and has a car, a job at a clothing store and a beautiful girlfriend. What more could a 17-year-old possibly need, right?

But after a breakup sends Sutter on an all-night bender, he awakes in the morning to find himself laying supine on a stranger's lawn and staring up into the face of classmate Aimee Finnicky, a quiet bookworm Sutter has never noticed at school before.

The two strike up a friendship which quickly turns romantic, with Sutter explaining to confused friends that he's simply trying to throw Aimee a bone to help her out. He invites her to a party, he steals a kiss during a walk through the woods and, in a move that may or may not have been a hasty attempt to instill jealously in his ex, asks her to accompany him to the high school prom.

It's familiar stakes, and told in the most familiar of ways, but The Spectacular Now is not interested in finding it's protagonist holding a boom box over his head or winning a bet on prom night. As Aimee and Sutter spend more and more time together it's clear to the audience that his feelings for her are genuine and that it is she that is helping him, not vice versa. It is Sutter's slow, reluctant realization of that fact that drives the film as he begins, ever so slightly, to confront the demons he's buried beneath nonchalance and the silver flask he keeps inside his jacket pocket.

The movie is more than a simple story of young love. Under the veneer of his boyish grin, Sutter is a damaged man who reels from the abandonment of his father – a brilliantly understated and atypical performance by Friday Night Light's Kyle Chandler – and a crippling fear of adulthood. He glorifies the carefree nonchalance of the titular present because he can not, or simply refuses to, envision a future for himself and, when backed into a corner by the march of time, self-sabotages in a way that is both disappointing and oddly commendable.

In The Spectacular Now, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber abandon the bells and whistles of their indie-smash (500) Days of Summer for a bare bones, deeply emotional plot. With their script, and under the direction of James Ponsoldt, high school as an age of transition and self-discovery has rarely been more successfully captured on screen. The story manages to avoid cliches while still portraying the universal experiences that shape the audience's recollection of teenage years.

If there is a fault, it is the under-utilization of its supporting cast, particularly Breaking Bad's Bob Odenkirk as Sutter's employer and The Wire's Andre Royo as his teacher. These acting talents add heft to their scenes but are largely sidelined for another glimpse of Aimee and Sutter cuddling sweetly over matching solo cups.

As Sutter and Aimee, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley deliver effortless characters whose actions and motivations are as organic as they are relateable. Teller, who's characters typically exude the fast-talking prater of a young Vince Vaughn, dials back his energy and casts a soulful tone as the conflicted and magnetic big man on campus. Woodley, for her part, inhabits Aimee's skin with the same ease that she did in 2011's The Descendants and adds another feather to her cap as one of Hollywood's most promising young talents. In other hands, Aimee could have become just another manic pixie dream girl, but instead Woodley gives us a wholly-realized, flawed character who acts precisely her age.

The Spectacular Now is a rare example of a film that stays perfectly within the tone and stakes of the world it has created. There are no sweeping declarations or grand swells of force-fed emotion. It is simply a story of two teenagers coming of age that engages the audience with its effortless sincerity.

Grade: A-

*The Spectacular Now opens in Utah on Friday, Aug. 23

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