Raise your hand if you’ve been a teenager before. Great, that’s most of you. The rest of you are too young to be using the internet anyway, so go on and git.
Directer James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) teams with writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, from “500 Days of Summer” hall of fame, to bring you “The Spectacular Now”, starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, and featuring appearances by TV powerhouse actors like Kyle Chandler, or Bob Odenkirk, from “Breaking Bad”.
Let’s see how fast I can get a summary out-of-the-way now. “The Spectacular Now” is about a prematurely alcoholic, nearly graduated senior, named Sutter. He’s the kid from your high school days that won the class clown superlative and kind of fit in with every friend group. He was dating the “hottest” girl in school Cassidy (Brie Larson) until a slight misunderstanding tore the two apart. Sutter drunkenly tells us it was the perfect relationship. After the 700th night of late night partying, Sutter wakes up in front of newspaper delivering Aimee; or, the pretty girl who no one seemed to notice in high school. Sh… err, stuff happens, and before you know it, Sutter and Aimee start a little fling and begin to fall deeply in noncommittal high school love.
Decent summary, but let’s hit the themes.
The screenwriting team and director have stated in multiple interviews that their inspirations were drawn from “The Graduate” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. A wide gap in release dates, but the idea is the prominence of coming-of-age. Both of these earlier films tackle the idea of growing up, and what happens after, or at least in Bueller’s case, how to make the most of your current time. This is Sutter’s life philosophy, living in not just the now, but the spectacular now. How great is the present, after all? Perhaps learning to live presently makes a strong case for living life to the fullest, but Sutter lacks the ability to look into the incoming future. The best thing about the present is that tomorrow will bring its own version of the present.
Sutter says he loves the people of his high school, and he manages to avoid cliques and has the uncanny skill to talk to everyone around him. Despite his ability to make friends, Sutter has deep-rooted problems in alcoholism and an inability to plan ahead. Many of his actions are based on the moment, including talking to his ex, while practically dating Aimee. He likely gets most of these traits from his washed-up, alcoholic father. His dad says he cares about his kids, but does nothing measurable to demonstrate value and truth to his words. Sutter can run his mouth as much as he wants, but nothing much comes of it.
Shailene Woodley puts on a tremendous, yet unnervingly natural performance as Sutter’s kind of, sort of rebound, Aimee. Many scenes between the two can feel like watching two of your own friends interacting. Their dialogue feels almost entirely ad-libbed, and it’s very moving to watch. Many middle-aged reviewers have claimed this as the pièce de résistance, yet I wonder how middle-aged men and women spend enough time with teenagers to know the acting is really this visceral. Regardless, we care little for a B-story in “The Spectacular Now” and even thought we begin to dig into Sutter’s failed father figure late in the film, the character development leading up to the final act is stunning, marvelous, and oh my goodness I simply can’t use many more adjectives to describe it. It really is something to behold. Really.
There is a lot of truth to the honesty of the characters. Aimee planned on having some version of a future, not knowing Sutter would hop into it. Sutter’s father was fine living his own life, pretending he had no form of parental discipline or responsibility (unfortunately relatable in a joke of an American culture that thinks divorce is an acceptable escape route). Sutter’s mother ignores the need of her son to seek out his only discernible father figure. Aimee’s mother forces her daughter to do work so she can hold onto her a bit longer. The list goes on. Each character, despite their screen time, has a very visible goal, yet both of our main characters ebb and flow, and help to decide what actually happens in each person’s life.
With a semi-washed out color palette, and an emphasis on close-ups that over exaggerate the focus on the two characters speaking, “The Spectacular Now” does a wonderful job of subtly conveying its message. I mean, go back and take a look at each conversational scene (hint, hint, the entire movie) and you will notice the composition of the majority of shots drop out the background and people walking around, in order to focus more closely on Sutter and Aimee. For the most part, every one else is a blur, except for the occasional moment when Cassidy is near. To add to the experience is a great score by Rob Simonsen. Moody guitar swells (reminiscent of “Explosions in the Sky”) and sometimes plucked violin strings can drive home the feeling of a slow, nagging urgency, or the light mood of something that seems innocent, yet carries an abundance of passion.
“The Spectacular Now” is a strong representation of modern-day teenagers and the immediacy of discovering who you will live to be post-high school. Perhaps it’s not so much about leaving for college as it is finding who you are and finally restructuring your beliefs to no longer be what your parents have taught you, and instead to become your own person, taking the lessons you’ve learned in life, and making them new.
I’m not sure that made much sense, but gosh darn it, high school was a blur anyway.