'Spectacular Now': Forthright, Eloquent Growing-Up Drama

Directed by: James Ponsoldt; Runtime: 95 minutes
Grade: B

In his under-the-radar drama Smashed, director James Ponsoldt explores the pains of coming to grips with the destructive, dead-end behavior of younger people with bright futures, laced with the effects of inebriation on their lives as a hindrance to their growth as individuals. His follow-up, The Spectacular Now, a coming-of-age drama based on the novel by Tim Tharp, finds a way of folding those themes into an environment where the fear of one's squandered future becomes even more prevalent, seen through the eyes of a flask-wielding high-schooler with earnest charm, a love for others, and little desire to strive for a better future. Recalling the teen dramas of Cameron Crowe and Peter Bogdanovich in the melancholy but hopeful romance between a troubled partier and a promising academic, Ponsoldt's film distills ambitious themes and sobering performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley into an unpretentiously expressive glimpse at their influence over one another, for better and for worse.

We're introduced to "life of the party" Sutter Keely (Teller, 21 & Over) -- a senior living with his always-gone nurse mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) -- as he halfheartedly types out a college acceptance form, retelling the story of his booze-infused breakup with an equally-extroverted and fiery girl, Cassidy (Brie Larson, 21 Jump Street). In the midst of his drunken spiral, he finds himself being awoken on a strange lawn by Aimee Finnecky (Woodley, The Descendants), a quieter and less-popular student from his class whom he really doesn't know, a study-minded girl who's become the financial and emotional foundation of her household. An unlikely bond forms between them over chats about their families and Sutter's need for a tutor, and as The Spectacular Now progresses through their courtship, the reasons behind Sutter's good-time decisions surface while he lowers his defenses. Confronted by his own emotional and mental hang-ups amid his blossoming affection for this doting girl with a promising future, the question becomes less whether Sutter can get his act together and mute his problems, but rather whether he will or not.

A downhearted, almost ominous tone rolls in on director Ponsoldt's film while we get to know Sutter more closely, ever suggesting that his downward-falling story could play out in ways some might not prefer. Warm yet truthful cinematography from Hot Fuzz photographer Jess Hall follows the borderline-alcoholic charmer around the Athens, Georgia locale as he works part-time at a men's clothing store and gets held after class for not doing his assignments, ever numbing his feelings and fueling his charisma with his refilled plastic cup. The Spectacular Now generates complex sensations around how Sutter's disposition impacts those around him, notably on the bottled-up Aimee: does he elevate her confidence by projecting his confrontational, bottle-swigging "Carpe Diem" attitude on her, or does he actually hinder her? While the film centers on how their relationship itself blossoms, its exploration of the characters is relatively one-sided towards Sutter, evaluating his darker family issues and rationale for smooth-talking his way through life.

That's not to say that Sutter and Aimee's romance isn't successful because of this sloping spotlight, because the exposed intimacy generated within their personality differences remains sincere, shrugging off stereotypes as it blossoms with lively, meaningful dialogue. The subtle gloom that Miles Teller brought to his disarming role in Rabbit Hole reemerges in Sutter, blending with the character's coolness and extroversion to embody this outgoing, troubled guy who cares deeply for others and uses alcohol as a crutch. Similarly, Shailene Woodley embodies a girl focused on studying, clubs, and science-fiction books with a refreshingly uncommon portrayal of some introverts, showing that she chooses to follow a quieter path instead of being forced down it. Amid sliding flasks, school dances, and interacting with Sutter's family, their complicated link comes across as more grounded than most other coming-of-age dramas, hinged on their mutual empathy towards one another's lives. There's hope in their infectious chemistry, despite the film's tonal suggestion warning against it.

Alas, the genuineness of The Spectacular Now heads down a road towards more cliche dramatics later on, where it forcibly bolsters those points about Sutter being a dangerous influence and the origin of his attitude dependent on alcohol and charismatic distraction. Despite a fitting and complicated performance from Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) as his estranged father, pulling back the curtain on many of the domestic mysteries hanging in the film's air, one can't help but feel frustrated that Sutter's internal issues are forced to deal with an overstated stab at cornering him in a guilty, depressive mindset, deflating some of the organic character progression. That streak of realism never breaks due to the performances, thankfully, allowing the film to spin its cautionary yarn and depict Sutter's conflicted emotional state, a person with the foresight to look after the interest of others without considering the best interests for himself. Enough's going on in this largely realistic story without working in cumbersome shock value, though.

It's hard to figure out exactly how much Sutter actually changes throughout the course of The Spectacular Now, a testament to Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's adapted script and Ponsoldt's nuanced orchestration of customary coming-of-age genre fixtures: disjointed homes, caring mentors, and moments of realization. The material clearly understands that people can't be easily quantified or willed to change, a somber but significant point to take away as the film's characters respond to Sutter's many missteps. One thing's clear, though: Sutter himself certainly feels the impact of what's happened to him across the end of his senior year, once again bringing us back to his moment in front of a computer screen as he tries to funnel his life onto paper. There are parts of his personality that he may or may not continue to evolve after the film's ambiguous yet encouraging ending, and it's up to those watching to figure out their own answers. The fact that The Spectacular Now makes one care enough to feel hopeful that he does, and worry that he might not, speaks highly of Ponsoldt's adaptation.

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