An impressive cast sees this latest from James Ponsoldt convey the optimism of the spectacular and the uncertainty of now.
The air of the familiar may linger over James Ponsoldt’s third feature, the director again telling a tale of alcohol’s pervasive grip on young lives and the lasting influence that can eventuate; however his efforts may just prove that repetition doesn’t always beget indifference. Indeed, subject matter aside the narrative similarities remain slight, with the commonality in approach more keenly felt. As Off the Black and Smashed did before it, The Spectacular Now takes its topic to a place overflowing with humour, heartbreak and hope.
With his devil-may-care attitude and attractive girlfriend (Brie Larson, Short Term 12), popular high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, 21 & Over) lives the perfect small town life – until one day, without warning, he doesn’t. Suddenly single and frequently intoxicated, his spiral of self-destruction brings him to the front lawn of unassuming, over-achieving Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley,TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager) after a particularly potent bender; to the surprise of both, a friendship and then something more blossoms. Soon, however, his penchant for being in the moment, and the future she represents but he can’t fathom, are bound to come into conflict.
As its title intimates, Ponsoldt’s protagonist – as adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer) from Tim Tharp’s novel – is only concerned with the here and now, with the happiness he can find in acts of instant gratification. Outwardly, he is confident and charming, seemingly blessed with every advantage; behind the façade, in the troubled home life that sees his single mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kill Your Darlings) and older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III) remain silent about the whereabouts of his father (Kyle Chandler, Broken City), sits a young man masking pain with hedonism and drinking. Without an air of pretence or an ulterior motive, Aimee breaks through his barriers, but living life as if there is a tomorrow is far from Sutter’s natural instinct. The Spectacular Now charts the path between reconciling the two, the journey to rediscover the ability to enjoy the present without fearing what comes next.
Though framed in the confines of teenage romance – and acted and written with age-appropriate authenticity, dialogue sparkling with awkward naturalism, and encounters of the platonic and sexual kind marked by their frankness and vulnerability – the story The Spectacular Now tells is one of maturity: approaching and accepting it, understanding and relating it. There’s sweetness in the burgeoning connection, but the film doesn’t sweep past the sharp, often liquor-soaked difficulties that threaten any glimpse of contentment. Good things happen, but so do bad; the coming-of-age at the feature’s centre is, in both clear and complicated terms, a coming to recognition of the flaws that haunt the passage to adulthood.
Ponsoldt’s work in crafting such a quietly compelling offering can’t be underestimated, the scenario likely a source of raucous broad comedy rather than restrained contemplation in any other hands. He allows his characters to live and breathe, to endear and grate, to be more than just archetypes for the sake of the story. He ensures their interactions carry on until their natural conclusion, no sign of the bite-sized, over-edited packaging prominent in teen fare. He gets uncomfortably close in their most tender moments, then lets their weighty conversations play out from afar, avoiding the safe, bland middle ground. Only the convenience of the ending threatens the realistic scenario and style he has cultivated.
And yet, The Spectacular Now belongs to its impressive cast, specifically the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize-winning Teller and Woodley. The former has built up a healthy resume that has flirted with more in the likes of Rabbit Hole; the latter follows up her lauded turn in The Descendants with another part of depth and difference. They bring out the best in each other, a pair perfectly suited to their chemistry and their characters. In their efforts, at all times sensitive, sincere and seemingly spontaneous, they convey the conflict of the titular state: the optimism of the spectacular, and the uncertainty of the now.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Spectacular Now
Director: James Ponsoldt
US, 2013, 95 mins
Release date: December 5