The Spectacular Now (2013)

8 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When a film truly captures what it’s like to be a teenager in high school, or in a high school romance, it’s something special. Generally, most of us come of age in a major way in our high school days and so, a film that captures certain dilemmas or relationships (either platonic or romantic) can make for a great, effective coming-of-age story, given the right amount of detail in writing and characterization. I can think of many such films that are great examples of such, including “Tex,” “Lucas,” and last year’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” among others; another to add to the list is “The Spectacular Now,” a truthful, incredible film about forming a high school senior forming a new relationship with someone he’d never met before, and learning to fully prepare for his own future.

His name is Sutter Keely (played by Miles Teller). He’s a semi-popular 18-year-old who lives in the “now” mainly because he doesn’t look forward to growing up and dealing with life the way adults in his life do. He has an amusing, likable personality that compensates for somewhat of a sad existence, having been without a father for a while and with not much of a relationship with his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He also drinks a lot, carrying around a whiskey flask to spike his soda cups, even at his part-time job. He would probably be best referred to as an “alcoholic Lloyd Dobler,” in reference to the John Cusack character in “Say Anything,” but that probably wouldn’t be fair.

One morning, Sutter is found lying flat on the front lawn of a house he doesn’t recognize, having drank heavily the night his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), broke up with him. The person who finds Sutter is Aimee Finnicky (Shailene Woodley), who goes to the same school as Sutter (though he doesn’t recognize her). Aimee is in the neighborhood covering for her mother’s paper route, and Sutter decides to help her with the rest of it, having nothing else to do. Sutter decides he wants to spend some more time with her, and wallflower Aimee is glad to be accepted by someone like him. So they share conversation after conversation as Aimee tutors Sutter in geometry, Sutter invites her to a lake party, and their relationship is mostly consisting of talks and meetings that simply don’t need any reason to be—they enjoy each other’s company, talk to and listen to one another, and their relationship flows naturally as it becomes something more.

Then comes the time when Sutter can’t deny his true feelings for Aimee, despite what he tells his friend who thinks Sutter is using Aimee as a clumsy rebound for Cassidy. Then comes the prom, to which they go together and see the good time that everybody has, despite being a somewhat pointless tradition. Then comes a sex scene, which I have to say completely surprised me in how it was handled. This could have been a low point of the film, in that it would have been sloppy and in a mean-spirited way. But instead, with the careful direction of James Ponsoldt, it’s handled in such a careful and delicate way that at no point does it seem embarrassing or a cheat. Sutter and Aimee don’t merely have sex; they make love. And as a plus, it knows just when to fade away from it.

Sutter and Aimee look, act, and feel like real high-schoolers. Their conversations, their world around them, their misadventures, etc. feel like the real deal, and with enough conflicts in their lives to make them even more interesting, these two are a high-school-film romance that is undoubtedly worth paying attention to. I loved watching these two together; they’re sincere, appealing, and well-rounded characters that feel like people we knew, or even people we were. The film goes even further with them as the film continues. As the first hour or so creates a unique spin on high-school-film territories, as the relationship and their situations are played with a great natural realism, the rest of the film, in my opinion, is surprisingly even better. This is the point in the film in which Sutter and Aimee are willing to help each other out—after Aimee has taken Sutter’s advice and stood up to her overbearing mother, Sutter then decides to take Aimee’s advice and get his deadbeat dad’s phone number from his mother or his older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And what happens? Sutter, bringing Aimee along, goes to visit Dad (Kyle Chandler) and he realizes how clear things are becoming. Not only does he see why he’s better off without his dad, but he also realizes the kind of person he himself might become if he keeps living life the way he does. And he truly realizes that he must somehow create his own future. But how? And does he want to? Can he change?

The final half-hour of “The Spectacular Now” is what truly pays off about the film. It’s all about coming of age and things coming into full perspective for the subject of that concept (in this case, Sutter). It’s not predictable and it’s as realistic and natural as what was set up before. It’s played with a sense of harsh reality and a possibility of learning to deal with it. I felt for the characters all throughout the film, and this final act made me care even more about them.

“The Spectacular Now” is a wonderful film—a film that is smart and knows how teenagers talk and act; the characters are three-dimensional and always appealing; the director and writer(s) don’t go for the easy ways out of a situation because they’re too respectful to their audience for that; and all in all, a rich, deep, meaningful, effective drama about growing up, forming a relationship, and facing your own future. This is one of the best films of 2013.

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