I get it.
In fact, I get it so much that it hurts.
Nearly 24 hours after having seen director James Ponsoldt's latest film The Spectacular Now, my heart and my mind are still overwhelmed at the words, thoughts, ideas and feelings that bombarded me as I watched this film that was part love story, part character study and part coming-of-age tale.
There are movies that change you. The Spectacular Now is such a film. This is not because it is a perfect film, because it is not a perfect film. The Spectacular Now is an ever so slightly flawed film about human beings who are beautiful yet flawed or, perhaps, beautiful because they are flawed and so heartbreakingly honest about it.
Sutter (Miles Teller, Footloose and The Rabbit Hole) is the kind of guy you loved in high school but you didn't really know him. You thought you knew him, but you really only knew what he wanted you to know. Even if you tried to get to know him, you failed.
He simply wouldn't allow it.
We meet Sutter after a brief, passionate encounter between he and his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson, United States of Tara and 21 Jump Street) is followed by what Sutter feels to be an unexpected break-up. Sutter does what he always does when something in life happens, good or bad, - he opens his flask of liquor and drinks. It's not so much that Sutter grieves the loss of this girlfriend as he simply grieves the loss of someone with which to share this moment right now.
This moment is awesome. That's all there is, ya' know?
A drunken Sutter wakes up and encounters Aimee (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants), the polar opposite of Sutter. Whereas Sutter is the the class clown and the life of the party, Aimee is an academically inclined introvert wallflower without any of the perks.
For the record, while it may sound like Sutter and Aimee are going to fit into the usual high school stereotypes you can rest assured that they don't.
Sutter isn't some godawful bad boy with a chip on his shoulder. He's a good kid who seems to have amazing potential if only he'd stop getting in his own way. He's not nearly as funny as he thinks he is and while, yes, he's troubled it's not in the way that we usually see "troubled" portrayed in this kind of film.
Aimee, while just a touch underdeveloped, is also not your stereotypical high school academic who blossoms when shown some attention. She's got her own strengths and the more Sutter spends time with her the more he realizes it even if it does appear that he starts spending time with her more out of a desire to make Cassidy jealous and possibly have her swooning back.
These characters feel real. They look real. They sound real. There's probably going to be someone in this film with whom you identify and I'd dare say you'll recognize these people from high school.
Sutter and Aimee are different, but they are the same.
Sutter hides behind his humor and his liquor and his "Who cares about the future persona?" as a defense mechanism against a life that has shoved him backward once too many times. His mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is an overworked nurse who truly loves him but isn't doing it in a way that he can receive it. His father (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights) has been gone for years and his sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed) seemingly hides behind the wealth she acquired by marrying an attorney.
Aimee lives with her mother, whom we never meet, but mostly lives her life making excuses for her. She has someone who seems to be a best friend in high school, but she has nothing and no one she can really claim as "her thing."
In many ways, The Spectacular Now feels like it's more about Sutter than it is Aimee but the more I think about it the more that seems appropriate because Sutter is "the thing" in the film and it's his being the thing that holds the entire story together.
It's uncomfortable. It makes sense. It's flawed. It's the way it should be.
There are a handful of scenes in The Spectacular Now that left me breathless, not because they were awesome but because they were filled with honesty and innocence and truth. A remarkably tender and awkward love scene is filled with the kind of tenderness that is so rarely scene in the cinema today, while one particular encounter between Sutter and his mother is nothing short of astounding.
The film is penned by 500 Days of Summer scribes Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter based upon a book by Tim Tharp. The Spectacular Now possesses many of the qualities of their film along with many of the qualities those who saw Ponsoldt's Smashed loved about it with the common factor being a strong naturalism that radiates from every cell of the film. This is true, rather refreshingly, even in the way that our characters are made up with their blemishes and humanity on full display rather than the usual polished and shiny characters that Hollywood so seems to love.
Miles Teller becomes increasingly impressive with each new performance. Here, he takes a character who could have so easily been turned into a one-note "bad apple" type and breathes all sorts of life into him. Teller's Sutter is so complex that it's hard not to identify with the many adults in his life who look past the flaws and bad decisions. Teller possesses enough edge that you're constantly wondering just how far Sutter will go, yet he's also charismatic and honest enough that you completely understand and buy into why he works so well with Aimee.
I must confess that I was one of the naysayers for Shailene Woodley's Oscar nominated performance in The Descendants, a performance that was certainly good but never felt award-worthy for me. Here, however, Woodley deserves all the accolades she will most assuredly receive for giving such a disciplined yet vulnerable performance as Aimee. Woodley makes Aimee someone you want to watch, protect and embrace at multiple times throughout the film even if her late choices in the film don't quite resonate as deeply as they should due to a slightly under-developed character.
The supporting characters are strong across the board including Brie Larson's refreshingly non-stereotypical performance as the beautiful girl who is truly afraid that this young man she adores is headed down the wrong path. Jennifer Jason Leigh's relatively brief appearance is extraordinary, while Kyle Chandler plays a difficult character with as much humanity as he can muster. As always, Mary Elizabeth Winstead lights up the screen any time she is on it.
D.P. Jess Hall's lensing catches all the right moods, while Rob Simonsen's original music companions both the film and the soundtrack quite nicely. Virtually every aspect of the film's production catches both the spectacular and the scary with equal impact.
The Spectacular Now has stayed with me and is still sloshing around my brain as I reflect upon what it has been like growing up with an illness where I've always been told how long I had to live. So, rather than planning for the future I lived in the now.
Suddenly, the future has arrived.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic