All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Though scripted, and acted with acute precision, James Ponsoldt’s knowing and sensitive film, The Spectacular Now, can trounce any alleged “reality” program and most documentaries at getting to the authentic core of how people behave, how they grow, and how they change. It joins Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine in being a summer entrant in this year’s Oscar sweepstakes.
The Spectacular Now has been called a “coming of age” movie. It isn’t. For “coming of age, you can go to Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s gentle but more contrived The Way, Way Back. The Spectacular Now is a movie about maturity. The character it depicts in the most depth, Sutter Keely, may be 18, but he has already come of age. He is sexually experienced. He’s been drinking for two-thirds of his life. He enjoys easy popularity and is known by everyone in his high school, even if some regard him as a joke. He has a car. He makes a living working at a men’s clothing store. He has charm, nerve, and self-confidence to spare. He leads his own life and, usually, on his terms.
Sutter may have gifts, but he prefers to submerge them to fun. More than Wicked’s Fiyero, he dances through life, and in his mind, he does it with the aplomb of Fred Astaire. To the geometry teacher who tells him he may flunk and miss being graduated, Sutter ticks off his advantages and says a diploma and life after high school will be a lark. To the classmate who attempts to help him grasp angles and rhomboids, he asks how anyone is going to use geometry. (Obviously, he is not looking to be an architect or engineer.) Sutter is a boy, but not in the sense of needing to hear about birds and bees or finding his place in the world. He needs to learn about responsibility and about achievement that goes beyond scoring with a girl or impressing his boss by selling a second tie to a customer in the haberdashery. He needs to realize the value of his gifts and the importance of everything from geometry to the people who are closest to him. Maturity.
As The Spectacular Now unspools, Sutter will figure out some of his lapses with the help of his geometry teacher and the women who care most about him. The crucial moments come when he processes the messages of loved ones or makes discoveries on his own. Ponsoldt lets these moments happen naturally. His picture of Sutter is one of evolution, and the director has the sense and deft control never to rush a sequence or revelation and never to push or overemphasize a scene in fear the audience won’t “get” it. Instead he makes us a witness to the faults and foibles Sutter doesn’t see and gives us the joy of seeing when truths dawn on Sutter.
Ponsoldt’s delicacy and soft approach to storytelling are much appreciated, especially in these days when emotions in movies are telegraphed in shorthand, announced instead of acted, and pitched to knock your socks off instead of affecting your mind or heart. Everything about his film feels real and plausible. Nothing is glamorized or given a Hollywood touch. The Georgia town where Sutter resides looks lived-in, a coat of paint needed here and there, a good gardener wanted to spruce up the neglected landscape. The rooms and hallways of the high school seem familiar and authentic. The store where Sutter works has seen better days in terms of upkeep and fashion. The characters look like people who go to work and eke out livings that are comfortable if not princely. Everything you see on Ponsoldt’s screen seems right and adds to the reality of the story.
That includes the actors and the acting. Miles Teller is not a stud or even what you’d call a looker. He is not particularly cute, handsome, or attractive. His nose is crooked, his eyes are close, and you can see the scars and blemishes on his skin. Teller can exude confidence. He can play the kid who knows where the bodies are buried and the elephants lie down. He makes Sutter cool and carefree, and he does it in a way that makes you like Sutter and want him to be better, to be as good in the wide, wide world as he is in this one high school in this one small town. You want Sutter to see and think about a future while enjoying how much he relishes the “now.”
Ponsoldt exposes more than Teller’s blemishes. He lets you see Sutter’s faults, but somehow in a way that doesn’t make you judge Sutter. You look at him and think, “Oh, that Sutter, drinking again, guzzling from that flask he keeps in his breast pocket.” Even as you worry that he is going to crash his car or get arrested for drunk driving, you don’t condemn him. It’s as if you adopted Sutter as your own charge. You don’t want to yell at him. You want him to change, to consider who and what he would be destroying if his unwitting self-destructive habits go too far.
For the actor and director, this is quite an achievement because it all happens so naturally. I can’t help using the words “real,” “natural,” and “authentic” more often than my writer’s sensibility would usually allow because they are the words that denote what is best and most admirable in The Spectacular Now.
Teller does not come off like an actor. He comes off as a kid you know and embrace the same way his girlfriends, sister, and mother do. It’s a canny performance that never betrays itself with the slightest hint of artifice.
If Teller is realistic and natural, Shailene Woodley as Aimee, the girl who affects him in spite of all odds, is a wonder. Woodley lives Aimee as if there was no script and no camera, only a life to live, a life that someone happens to be photographing. Woodley, who also made an impression in 2011’s The Descendants, doesn’t show a hint of self-consciousness. She goes about Aimee’s business as if she was a Georgia high school girl tending to her job and surprise boyfriend while planning to head to Philadelphia and college after she is graduated. There is no artifice anywhere. I don’t know whether Woodley will be considered for an Oscar, as she was without garnering a nomination for The Descendants, but she should be. She makes Aimee one of the most loveable screen characters in ages, and she does it by portraying that character’s openness and freshness. Aimee is perceptive and is aware of all that is going on around her. Woodley expresses that while also conveying the understanding, toleration, and patient of a woman who cares because she is in love and is willing to accept her beloved, scars, crooked nose, and all. Best of all, she does more than make you believe, she shows you why Aimee is worthy of attention and affection she doesn’t ask for or seem to crave as much as the high schoolers around her do. Woodley’s is a remarkable performance.
Everyone in the movie, from Jennifer Jason Leigh, the one star, who plays Sutter’s plain-speaking mother, to Christopher Nathan Miller, who is on the screen for 20 seconds as Aimee’s disdainful kid brother, is perfect in his or her portrayal. They are all believable and never give in to showiness, histrionics, or movie tricks like laughing at a meal or mugging for the camera. They don’t just populate a movie, they populate a world. Even the performance that is the most actory, Kyle Chandler’s as Sutter’s father, is grounded in — get ready for the word again — authenticity.
Kudos go to Brie Larson as Sutter’s girlfriend at the start of the film, Dayo Okeniyi as the boy who takes Sutter’s place in his first love’s life, Andre Royo as the concerned geometry teacher, Masam Holden as a close friend Sutter takes under wing, Nicci Faires as Aimee’s best friend who is worried about Aimee’s heart being broken, Bob Odenkirk as Sutter’s boss, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has two small but excellent scenes as Sutter’s grown and well-heeled married sister.
The Spectacular Now was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber who deserve praise for writing a narrative that takes two affecting characters on a journey and that manages dramatic ups and downs and small but purposeful surprises with laudable skill. They obvious know and respect their characters. They can take someone as complex as Sutter, destined for revelation, and as simple as Aimee, accustomed to being the one not chosen and content with that and anything else that constitutes her lot, and keep them lifelike and interesting.
The Spectacular Now provides shrewd insight into this period in history. Best of all, it does it via an essentially human story that lets humans look, behave, and respond as they do in real life. I recommend it highly.