The Spectacular Now (2013)
Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Sutter Keely is a high school senior under the impression he and his girlfriend, Cassidy are the life of the party. Their relationship crashes and burns when he is caught in a compromising situation where he is honestly not cheating. However, as the film goes on, we begin to understand where Cassidy is coming from. In the meantime, Sutter goes on a bender and wakes up in the front yard of Aimee, a girl in his year. She is reserved and more studious than Sutter, but he feels drawn to her, both as a rebound and because she has such a pure caring spirit. However, Sutter begins to pull Aimee into his way of life, hiding a flask of liquor and coming to work and school at least buzzed if not more. There are also questions about Sutter’s dad and why his parents divorced. The answers will lead to the young man being forced to make tough choices about his life.
Before I watched The Spectacular Now I had a very clear presupposition about the film. I expected it would be about high school students, someone would have cancer, there would be an inspirational voiceover, the ending would be designed to pull the heartstrings of high school girls. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I was definitely surprised by some of the choices made in this movie.
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley play the leads, with Brie Larson as Cassidy. That’s already a pretty strong main cast. In supporting roles, you have Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bob Odenkirk, and Kyle Chandler. So once again, pretty strong lineup. The direction of the movie required our two leads to play out many scenes in an improv style. Some pieces of dialogue were written down, but mostly these scenes about attempting to create natural chemistry between Teller and Woodley. They are actually quite good and are some of the better parts of the movie. The movie veers towards the more cliche high school Nicholas Sparks territory in the big dramatic scenes, though there is a healthy tension between melodrama and a muted tone.
I was very worried in the opening monologue as we were introduced to Sutter Keely that we were getting the redemption of the asshole storyline. And for a big chunk of the movie that is the direction things are moving in. All throughout though I noticed how much drinking was happening on screen without characters talking about it. This consumption has been so normalized by Sutter mainly that he doesn’t think about how much he is ingesting. It’s no surprise that this ends up becoming the crux of the film. While we don’t have teens dying of cancer, we do have a topic that is rife for an afterschool movie. Director Ponsoldt is working hard to keep the film from being too bright and cheery. The color palette on screen reminded me of shades of Jeremy Saulnier’s work (Blue Ruin, Green Room).
The final monologue of the picture is where I felt most of my hackles rise. I did some research about the novel that was the basis for The Spectacular Now and learned its ending (included as one of the final scenes in the film) is much darker and ambiguous than what we see on screen. Apparently, to make the movie more audience-pleasing a pretty cliche final scene was tacked on. Now, this scene still exhibits some ambiguity, there is a look that I read on first glance as incredulous, not a welcoming or happy one. If the movie ended with the bleaker, heart-wrenching scene, I know The Spectacular Now would have been a film I loved. But, because the decision to soften those blows was made it ends up being not a bad picture, but nothing amazing.