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The Spectacular Now

Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

(A24; US DVD: 14 Jan 2014)

On the surface, it seems like The Spectacular Now is no different from your average teen movie. It starts off at an Atlanta, Georgia high school sometime during senior year. The all-around popular guy, Sutter (Miles Teller), meets the pretty-but-unnoticed shy girl, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). They strike up an unlikely friendship, then an even-more-unlikely romance, and then have to figure out what to do about the world after high school.


In the hands of James Ponsoldt —adapting the novel by Tim Tharp—what could easily become your typical end-of-high-school love story becomes something much harder to create: a teen movie that resembles real life more than other teen movies. In Ponsoldt’s commentary and a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes included in the Blu-ray, Ponsoldt says he was striving for authenticity and, for the most part, he achieves it.


Teller and Woodley, along with the rest of the cast, look and talk like real teenagers. Their clothes are worn and wrinkled and look like they were bought at Target. They sweat when it’s supposed to be hot out, and things like pimples and scars aren’t airbrushed out or caked over with makeup. (The authenticity spills over into the location as well; an Atlanta native, Ponsoldt notes in his commentary that he wanted to show off the city the way the locals see it, by including, say, his favorite college record store as opposed to the usual tourist attractions.)


Similarly, the problems Sutter and Aimee face in their relationship are more grounded than in their teen-movie counterparts. Aimee has to vie for Sutter’s attention with his ex girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson). But Cassidy is presented as a whole person, not a villain with an evil plot to squire Sutter away. In fact, there are no real villains in the movie, just difficult situations—like exes, or first-time sex, or dealing with flawed parents—that would be recognizable to almost any high schooler.


Without having any dramatic villains or crazy hijinx to cram in to its short 95 minutes, The Spectacular Now is allowed to move at a slower pace. We get to spend some time with Sutter before he even meets Aimee. We see long conversations unfold that aren’t there just to further the plot. It’s almost old-fashioned, though Ponsoldt would probably call it “timeless”. The filmmaking matches. He shot it on anamorphic 35mm, with nary a shakey hand-held camera to be found. There are no showy visual tricks or music-video edits. Even the soundtrack is absent of any Top-40 hits that would immediately peg it to summer, 2013.


Once we get to know the characters and understand the general understated feel of the film, the story begins to tackle larger, heavier issues, but never veers into melodrama. Sutter’s drinking, for example, starts off as a marker of his fun-loving attitude. (He first meets Aimee when she comes across him passed out on a lawn.) Throughout the movie, it’s revealed to be more and more of a problem, but he never has an after-school-special moment to bring the problem to the forefront.


Eventually, he loses his job because of his drinking, but very quietly—he doesn’t show up to work fall-down drunk or cause any kind of scene. When Sutter’s boss (Bob Odenkirk) dismisses Sutter, he says, “I suppose if I were your father, this is where I might give you a lecture or something about what you’re doing to yourself.” That’s the extent of his admonishment—a big, dramatic speech about the dangers of drinking never arrives. Even more heartbreaking is Sutter’s response: “If you were my dad, you wouldn’t have to.”


It’s one of the most effective scenes in the movie, and not just because Odenkirk is playing a fatherly figure that seems diametrically opposed to Breaking Bad‘s Saul. Ponsoldt actually gives almost every actor in the film a chance to play against type. Teller, usually given the goofy best friend/party animal roles in movies like Footloose, Project X, and 21 and Over, plays a character that seems like it should be your typical Alpha Male. Teller’s easy charm, though, softens Sutter and keeps him from going into total-douchebag territory.


Similarly, Woodley looks like she could be your average high school mean girl, and instead she’s given the role of the shy, quiet loner. Even Kyle Chandler, ever the all-American hero or clean-cut FBI agent, gets cast as Sutter’s dirtbag estranged father. Choosing such unconventional choices brings freshness to the characters, and keeps them from falling back into types.


You can tell that Ponsoldt really respects his cast. He devotes a great deal of his commentary to praising their other TV and movie roles. (The other DVD features are a little meatier, because producers, writers, and the cast are included, so there are voices represented beyond Ponsoldt’s. But he also takes time to reference touchstone coming-of-age movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or The Last Picture Show. You can tell he’s really engrossed himself in the world of coming-of-age movies. The good news is, he was able to surpass most of them.

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