Watching “The Spectacular Now”
I love coming-of-age films, and the new movie “The Spectacular Now” is a very good one — unusually sensitive and perceptive, with lead characters who are endearing and flawed and worth rooting for. Critics have compared “The Spectacular Now” to the great coming-of-age teenage romance “Say Anything,” and though it’s not quite as good as the earlier film, it’s certainly in the same league.
Much of the film’s success hinges upon Sutter Keely and Aimee Finicky, who fall in love during their senior year. Sutter (Miles Teller) is funny, bright and likable, but lacking in ambition: He’s a heavy drinker who cares little about schoolwork or responsibility — about anything other than having fun, right now. Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is smart and geeky and shy, but not exactly lacking in confidence — it’s just that her interests and goals lie outside of the high school mainstream. One of the nice things about this film is that becoming cool isn’t Aimee’s primary goal in life, as it would be in a lesser teen film: She’s content to do her own thing, and is drawn to Sutter because she senses that he’s a good person, not because he’s popular and goes to cool parties. Sutter and Aimee are a mismatch, but the film doesn’t dwell on this, and the plot is about much more than whether they get together, or go to prom. They do get together, and they do go to prom, but “The Spectacular Now” is more interested in how their relationship changes them, and what it might mean for their future.
“The Spectacular Now” covers familiar territory. We know Sutter and Aimee will fall in love, that they’ll face certain obstacles, and that they’ll be better people by the end of the movie. But director James Ponsoldt makes some unusual narrative choices. Until the very end of the film (which is, in my opinion, a bit too glib and sunny), he finds subtle ways to suggest that Sutter and Aimee might not be such a good match — that they’re in the early stages of a co-dependence.
Because Sutter is an alcoholic — there’s a telling scene, late in the film, when his boss at the clothing store tells him how much he likes him, and how much he wants to keep him on staff. There’s just one caveat: Sutter must promise that he won’t come to work drunk. And Sutter says he can’t make that promise, and leaves. It’s also worth noting that Aimee has always abstained from drinking — until she meets Sutter, and starts carrying around a small flask, just like he does. And we can see that Sutter might not be completely trustworthy — that he still has feelings for the popular girl who dumped him earlier in the year, and that when he’s drunk he says and does things he won’t remember in the morning, though Aimee will.
As Sutter and Aimee, Teller and Woodley are fantastic. Woodley earned rave reviews for her fine work as George Clooney’s daughter in “The Descendants,” but Teller is new to me and, based on his work in “The Spectacular Now,” I really like him. He and Woodley are both attractive and likeable, but their performances are noteworthy for the other qualities they bring, such as vulnerability and awkwardness. Their characters are both from single-parent homes, and there’s a touching scene where Sutter learns what happened to Aimee’s father, and the information seems to deepen his appreciation of her. The film’s supporting characters are also sharply drawn: I especially liked Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as Sutter’s sister, and Masam Holden, as Sutter’s best friend, Ricky.
Some have criticized “The Spectacular Now” for taking on too many issues — alcoholism, absent parents, academic setbacks, etc. But the film’s willingness to delve into these topics is one of the things I liked about it. The messiness of the characters’ lives felt realistic to me, and reminded me of some of the kids I knew growing up. “The Spectacular Now” understands that Sutter and Aimee are struggling with problems that are not easily solved — that might never be solved. Late in the film, there’s an interesting scene where Sutter’s geometry teacher (Andre Royo, from “The Wire”) warns him that if he doesn’t pass his class, he won’t graduate. Sutter expresses indifference. “I don’t see what’s so great about being an adult,” he says, and then asks his teacher, “Are you happy?” Tellingly, the teacher doesn’t answer.
One of the more intriguing things about “The Spectacular Now” is that it doesn’t answer all of the questions it raises. Sutter and Aimee SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! do reunite at the end, after a brief hiatus in which Sutter makes some halting steps toward getting his act together. But is their reunion really the best thing? Will they still be together in 10 years? Or will Sutter break Aimee’s heart? That the audience is even asking these questions — and that it cares about the answers — is a big part of what makes “The Spectacular Now” special.
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