Monday 14 May 2018

Movie Review: The Spectacular Now (2013)

A teen high school drama and romance, The Spectacular Now treats its characters with respect but stumbles on some uneven tones.

Sutter (Miles Teller) is in his last year of high school, half-heartedly applying to colleges. Sutter is popular, but lives for the moment, barely studies, and has no plans for the future. He has a strained relationship with his mother Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and does not know much about his father except that he left the house years earlier. Sutter is also a heavy drinker, keeping a flask handy and gulping alcohol at every opportunity.

His long-term girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) finally dumps him when she catches him in the company of another girl, but Cassidy is really tired of Sutter's overall aimlessness. She starts a relationship with star athlete Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), but Sutter does not give up hope of winning her back. Meanwhile he meets the down-to-earth Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a hard working low profile student with her own dominating mother. Sutter takes Aimee on as a project to introduce her to the fun life, and gradually they prod each other towards change.

Directed by James Ponsoldt and co-written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, The Spectacular Now takes a relatively serious look at a teenager as he stands at the crossroads. The film sets out to draw a stark line of contrast between the carefree, live-for-today attitude and the more cerebral, worry-about-the-future stance most young people tend to find natural. Sutter very much belongs in the former camp, to the exasperation of his friends and teachers, but he sees little point in anything except enjoying the current moment.

How Sutter, a seemingly intelligent, caring and capable young man, came to be so indifferent to his own future is revealed slowly, Ponsoldt content to let the story unfold at a relaxed pace. The majority of the film is mostly occupied with Sutter being Sutter, working hard at doing nothing, tentatively exploring the strange and new attraction he senses towards Aimee while at the same time finding it difficult to let go of Cassidy.

The deliberate exposition is both a strength and weakness. While Sutter emerges as a well-rounded and deeply flawed character, the film is repetitive and entrenches his self-destructive behavioral patterns, including uncontrolled drinking, driving while impaired and an inability to motivate himself to study. When the moment of truth comes and Sutter has to evolve or wither, he has precious little time and space to convincingly maneuver.

With the entire film riffing on themes from Say Anything..., Miles Teller channels a more adrift version of John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler. Shailene Woodley is impeccable as the star-struck new possible girlfriend, her quick entry into Sutter's hard drinking orbit one of the film's more disturbing themes. But The Spectacular Now reaches a gut-wrenching cinematic peak and emotional trough when Sutter finally and simultaneously catches up with his past and his future. Suddenly, aiming for the thrill of now does not appear all that spectacular.

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