Reviews

'The Spectacular Now': High School and Consequences

What high school partier Sutter can't realize is that being 18 and in love with the perfect, nerdish Aimee may be the high point of his life.


The Spectacular Now

Rated: R
Writer: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk, Andre Royo, Kaitlyn Dever, Dayo Okeniyi, Masam Holden
Studio: A24
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-08-02 (Limited release)
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The Spectacular Now is another soulful story about adolescents careering messily into first loves. It's also not quite so predictable as that sounds. It's a high school movie that doesn’t instantly slot each character into a preordained subculture, then go on to confirm or challenge those stereotypes. It's also a high school movie where teenage partying has consequences.

Both these stories find a center in Sutter (Miles Teller), a life-of-the-party guy who narrates the opening against a flickering montage of his raging good times: drinking, dancing, laughing, leaping into a pool, drinking again. He meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley) when he ends one evening driving woozily all over what looks to be a smallish Southern town, then passing out on some stranger’s lawn.

In waking him up, Aimee is rescuing him from himself, a role the film telegraphs when you first see her, highlighting her face with a fuzzy sun-halo. It will take her the rest of the movie to realize what a gruesome burden she's assuming: she's not so much finding him as he's crashing through her life. We can understand the initial appeal: he's charismatic and he knows, or at least thinks he knows, that everybody loves him.

Being as popular as he is, Sutter doesn’t know Aimee before this night, but she knows him. She also knows herself, uncommonly well for a teenager in a high school movie, and so she displays both self-possession and alluring charms, even though she’s never had a boyfriend, doesn’t drink, doesn’t go to parties, and so on. Sutter isn't quite what he seems, either: he doesn’t immediately assume that the quiet, polite, and studious Aimee is a nerd, and so a girl to be abused and ignored or exploited. That's not to say he fails to exploit her. It's only a matter of minutes before he’s asking for her to tutor him in geometry.

Sutter’s eager, puppy-dog mien indicates that, despite his seeming self-confidence, he really wants everyone to like him. He’s like an unpaid and unasked-for life coach, albeit with a limited vocabulary. “That’s awesome,” he says more than once, along with variations like, “Go for it, because you’re awesome.” Nevertheless, this advice works wonders on Aimee’s dormouse tendencies. Before you know it, she’s drinking from a flask at parties and telling her mom that yes, she’s moving away to college. What Sutter isn’t able to do is take his own advice. And so he procrastinates when pressed to make decisions -- about college, about moving on from an ex-girlfriend (Brie Larson), about dealing with his estranged dad (Kyle Chandler), and about why he’s always hauling around a soda-fountain cup that’s not filled with soda.

The Spectacular Now eases sublimely into the love story, from Aimee and Sutter's meet-drunk through the expected senior-year trials. As he did in Smashed, director James Ponsoldt pays attention to the details of everyday ebbing and flowing, to the ways that moments of light comedy can help to ease us -- viewers and characters -- through crises. He teases warm, naturalistic performances from Woodley and Teller, both of whom have the bright eyes and quick give-and-take of born wits, but not that angular and underfed look of so many young actors. Their faces, their contemplations as well as their delights and disappointments, are set off by smart cinematography that is somehow both lush and nonshowy.

What Ponsoldt can’t completely overcome are the screenplay’s limitations. With their strained and affected emo-rom-com 500 Days of Summer, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber didn’t exactly show themselves to be the masters of authenticity. Working from Tim Tharp’s novel, a National Book Award finalist, their romance here is more convincing, but still marked by awkward elements. Sutter comes with an insecure sidekick, Ricky (Masam Holden), who comes briefly on screen and for little other reason than objecting to his cool friend dating a geek like Aimee. And Aimee herself is given short shrift, an impressively rounded person whose trajectory is cut short to give more space to Sutter’s voyage of self-discovery.

Fortunately, Sutter has sufficient verve and damage to warrant this attention. In part this is a function of his full-blown alcoholism. Late in the film, Sutter (who has uncanny abilities to evade seekers of legal ID) is in a bar, jawing with an old drunk, a scene that offers skyscraper-sized symbolism in a Ghost of Christmas Future way. At the same time, however, the scene demonstrates what the movie does well throughout, helping us to feel what Sutter feels, his sudden understanding and terror that “This will be me in 30 years.” It's a moment of crystal artistic clarity, the sort that Dickens also conjured, amid the mawkishness.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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