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Indie Snapshot: The Spectacular Now

by admin August 2, 2013 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: The Spectacular Now

If movies could be released as cassette singles (remember those?), some enterprising producer could make a killing putting out a tape with last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower as the lushly orchestrated A-track and The Spectacular Now as the stripped-down flip side. Taken together, these are two of the best examples of the John Hughesian coming-of-age high school drama since… well, since the heyday of John Hughes. What’s interesting, though, is that while they cover similar ground and inspire the same heady mix of emotions in the audience, they go about the task in significantly different ways. Perks is sweeping and swoony, filled with the kind of grand passions and gestures that mark adolescence. As the title suggests, The Spectacular Now is rooted in the moment, depicting the ordinary experiences of its teenage characters in ordinary ways. But its within that ordinariness that both the characters and the audience can occasionally catch a glimpse of the spectacular.

The other major difference between Perks and Now -- and this is the reason why I think the latter is a more daring movie than the former, even though Perks has grown in my esteem since my initial mezzo-mezzo review -- is the attitude it takes towards its central character. Logan Lerman’s wallflower Charlie is a highly romanticized figure, a preternaturally smart, but socially-awkward freshman who we watch get drawn out of his cocoon by a tight-knit circle of friends and subsequently soar off into the sky. It’s the kind of aspirational transformation that’s intensely appealing to audiences, particular those who are wallflowers in their own lives. Miles Teller’s Sutter Keely, on the other hand, doesn’t need any help making friends; when we meet him at the beginning of The Spectacular Now, he’s already one of the most popular kids in school, a Ferris Bueller-like savant with a casual disregard for authority, a knockout girlfriend (Brie Larson) and a “Let’s get this party started!” attitude. We also very quickly learn that he’s an amateur alcoholic who uses his fun-loving persona as a way to justify getting hammered as often as possible, mostly to escape his troubled home life as the son of a constantly-working single mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a long-absent father.

If Sutter doesn’t sound like an especially sympathetic hero, that’s entirely intentional. Although the story unfolds largely through his eyes, director James Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adapting the book by Tim Tharp) subtly shift perspective at times to let us see how others in his life regard him. And it ain’t always pretty; his girlfriend, for example, dumps him once it becomes all too clear that his “live for the now” philosophy is primarily just a smokescreen to keep him from having to think about the future. Partly out of spite and partly because he can’t bear to be alone with his thoughts, Sutter immediately starts a rebound relationship with gawky, anime-reading introvert, Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley). Though he doesn’t intend to fall in love with Aimee, her sweet nature and open acceptance of his faults (to the point where she actually becomes something of an enabler) confounds and strengthens him in equal measure, since he’s used to being treated like a clown. And she, in turn, learns to channel some of his supreme self-confidence (even if that’s eventually revealed to be a mask) to make some major life decisions that’ll take her out of their small town and on to bigger things.

The Aimee/Sutter relationship is the beating heart of The Spectacular Now and Teller and Woodley are quite wonderful together, registering a chemistry that almost reaches Lloyd Dobler/Diane Court heights. (It must be said, though, that Woodley is too strikingly pretty to be the shy, retiring nerd Aimee is introduced as. To her credit, the actress does her best to deglamorize, going through the film with very little make-up and adopting a set of gawky mannerisms that are endearing without feeling forced. Still, the first time that Sutter turns to her and says, “You’re beautiful,” you don’t think “Awww” -- you think, “Well, duh.”) I also appreciated the measured tone that Ponsoldt brings to the proceedings; it’s easy to overdramatize every little moment in this particular genre, since that comes with the territory of being a teenager. (Perks was certainly guilty of that to a certain degree, often making it seem like each new experience Charlie had was the Most Important Thing That Had Ever Happened to Anyone, Anywhere.) Indeed, the weakest part of the movie comes towards the end, when Sutter finally experiences the kind of big emotional breakdown/breakthrough that he was probably overdue for, yet still feels too conventional for a movie that otherwise finds interesting ways around such familiar teen movie conventions. Even when it’s not spectacular, though, The Spectacular Now remains something pretty special.

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