Mark Reviews Movies

The Spectacular Now


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Ponsoldt

Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Masam Holden, Dayo Okeniyi, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

MPAA Rating: R (for alcohol use, language and some sexuality - all involving teens)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 8/2/13 (limited); 8/9/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 8, 2013

There's no denying that Sutter (Miles Teller), the protagonist of The Spectacular Now, is a fun guy. He has an easy way of socializing with just about anyone he encounters, whether it's random people at a party or the customers at the men's clothing store where he works. He's at his best in a crowd, where he can introduce people to others they might never have known otherwise and slip away once their conversation gets started. When he realizes his friend is a little lonely for want of female companionship, he takes him for a drive, looking for "potential" (That's a way of putting it) and, when he finds a girl for his buddy, he sets the couple off alone together on a canoe, making up an excuse that he forgot his cell phone.

Everything is about other people for Sutter—making sure they're comfortable, happy, and, above all, having a good time. It's a kind of social martyrdom that Sutter practices—sacrificing his own long-term contentedness for the short-term pleasure of others.

At least it would be if Sutter saw it that way. In theory, he is about to graduate from high school, if he can only figure out geometry by the time of the final exam.  After that, he hasn't given too much thought to his life except for the things he doesn't want. He doesn't want to go to college. There's no point. Maybe he'll stay working at the clothing store and just see what happens.

Sutter doesn't believe much in the future, because he's convinced it doesn't hold much in store for him. His philosophy is to live in and for the moment—the now. That's where happiness is: in hanging out with people at parties, hooking up his friends, and drinking to the point where he forgets everything that's happened by the next morning—or, more likely, the next afternoon—when he awakens.

For you see, Sutter is a functioning alcoholic. He carries around a flask with a wretched concoction of liquor in it everywhere he goes. One morning, he wakes up on someone's front lawn after an all-night binge and is treated to the sight of a girl backlit by the sun like some kind of angel. Her name is Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She's also a senior. She knows him by reputation, and Sutter knows her by the fact that she doesn't really have one.

She's a bookworm who collects manga and has a plan for her life that she's convinced will never happen because of her family situation.  Both she and Sutter are imprisoned in their less-than-ideal circumstances, but he has chosen his sentence. She is a victim of a lazy, no-good mother who can't even be bothered to do her job of delivering newspapers in the morning.

What follows their initial meeting is a complex, bittersweet relationship between a guy who refuses to allow himself any sort of joy and a girl who clings to any semblance of it. They couldn't have more different romantic backgrounds. She's never had a boyfriend, and he's still reeling from being dumped by Cassidy (Brie Larson), a pretty and popular girl. The two were the life of the party when they were together; that's what he liked most about her.

That's telling, as is her later explanation for why she broke up with him. Catching him with another girl—an innocent misunderstanding—was just an easy, immediate reason. It was really because he had no plan for his life. She's worried for Aimee. "Have you turned her into a lush yet," she asks—a joke that's barely hiding the truth.

She's not the only one. Aimee's friend (Ava London) is suspicious of Sutter from the start. His friend Ricky (Masam Holden) constantly questions what he sees her Aimee, and it's obvious the question is not one that's critical of her but of him. Sutter insists he's just trying to help the girl.

They have good reason to be concerned. Sutter is a mess with an absentee father whom he hasn't seen since he was a child and a mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whom he resents for pushing his father away, despite her story of what happened between them. Sutter can't bring himself to believe his own father just abandoned his family.

The mystery leads to a series of utterly heartbreaking scenes in which Sutter tracks down his father, played by Kyle Chandler in a performance that conveys everything we need to know about this man in the look on his face the first time he sees his son after a long stretch of years. The payoff comes not from the man himself but from Sutter's boss (Bob Odenkirk), who suggests that, if he were his father, he would have a talk with the boy about how he's ruining his life; Sutter's response, a perfect mixture of compliment and pained self-awareness, is shattering in its simplicity.

The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the novel by Tim Tharp) is unafraid of the uncomfortable honesty typified in those scenes, especially when it comes to its troubled protagonist. Sutter is a jerk who is more than likely using Aimee (at first to get his ex's attention and later because he's in too deep), but then again, he clearly doesn't know what he's doing (He asks her to prom but only remembers it in flashes the next day, having gotten black-out drunk by the time he did).

Teller's performance is vital to our willingness to sympathize with a boy who is either—at worst—intentionally or—at best—unwittingly manipulating someone who's too naďve to realize that is the case, and he garners our sympathies by drawing almost entirely from the wellspring of pain that's just waiting for the right moment to show itself. Woodley has the difficult task of making a fully fleshed character out of one who primarily serves as an object, but note the plain sincerity with which she explains her dream of a perfect life while having dinner at the home of Sutter's sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). It's the fact that she is more than just someone to fix Sutter that makes his emotional betrayals as difficult as they are to reconcile.

Director James Ponsoldt has crafted a sage character study that compels us confront the darker forces at work in the lives of seemingly ordinary teenagers. The Spectacular Now is a wonderful drama about damaged people and the cyclical nature of emotional injury.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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