Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 19, 2013 8:29 pm 
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Alcoholism and youthful indiscretion

Though somewhat confused in intention -- indications are that the filmmakers took a darker book and softened it into more of a teen rom-com and coming-of-ager -- The Spectacular Now is, in large part, a blissful, lovely movie, mainly because the direction is sure and natural and the two main characters, the boy protagonist, Sutter, and his faithful but despairing new girlfriend, Aimee, feel utterly right in their roles. They get a rhythm going, Miles Teller as Sutter particularly does, that's so sure, it doesn't feel like acting. Or it feels like a real person who is "on" most of the time, putting on a show. Aimee is played by Shailene Woodley, the mischievous, uncooperative daughter in The Descendants; she was great in that, but completely different. Here in a way she is just a foil to Sutter, but a heartstoppingly eager one, and real in any case. We know Sutter is dangerous. At seventeen, he's already drinking all the time. He is filtering reality away and caring for nothing but "the spectacular now," the golden moment, the good time. And not really present in the "now" either.

Miles Teller seemingly hasn't had any big roles. He had a small but important one in Rabbit Hole as the guilt-ridden boy who accidentally ran over the little girl. He is troublingly at ease in the role of Sutter. He looks like a boy who has done years of partying himself, with the chubbiness and jolly blankness of the habitual drinker. Teller's so good it's not surprising that now he already has five more movies coming. Maybe they saw him in this, or maybe he just does great auditions. But it's unlikely that he's going to get to deliver a performance up to this level for some time to come.

Sutter is a senior in high school. He is thinking about applying to college but he's sipping a beer as he fills out an application, and he uses language in his Letter of Intent that shows he doesn't take it seriously, though he's looking at his life intensely. He has a girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson, another hot young actor, though she may have had too many roles rather than too few). She is fed up with him, and it makes her cry, because he can't be serious, and can't be trusted. And yet he is lovable, and though his mother, Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh, with not much of a part, but one very fine, touching scene), is cold toward him, he answers, "I love you so much." He is a lover, and people like him -- and then don't take him seriously. He's too much of a charmer to be real. Eventually we see and he sees that the drinking is, as so often, to hide from something -- his essential lack of self-esteem. And yet every time he walks into a room, it lights up. His boss at the men's clothing store says the customers like him, and he is very reluctant to let him go when he cannot promise not to come into work "with a buzz on" ever again. He always has a buzz on.

Sutter plays back and forth between Cassidy and Aimee. Aimee is a naive, sweet girl who has never had a boyfriend, and she says "yes" to everything he suggests. She's eager to play his game. Of course she wants a drink, of course she wants to go on a date tonight, of course she wants to go to the prom with him. He sweeps her off her feet. (There is a very real, but sweet, sex scene between them that Rob Nelson of Variety calls "startlingly intimate".) Sutter, on the other hand, is a tragic relationship for Cassidy, who has known him for quite a while. She has another boyfriend now, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), who is a campus big shot, yet knows he can't be as wild and funny for Cassidy as Sutter. Cassidy can never trust Sutter again, and yet she still feels pulled toward him. Aimee ignores this. She can't believe her luck. She starts drinking from Sutter's little flask of whisky with him. ("Have you turned her into a lush yet?" Cassidy asks, knowing full well.) Sutter's prom gift to Aimee is her own flask, with her name on it. They drink at the prom. Nothing new here, but Sutter has several accidents, in one of which Aimee narrowly misses serious injury. And he has another one by himself. When he first met Aimee, he woke up on the lawn of a somebody's house.

Tiller keeps the rhythm going almost all through the movie. He doesn't fool his math teacher (Andre Royo); he's flunking math, and might not graduate because of it. The shift comes when he keeps insisting that he be given his missing father's coordinates so he can re-connect with him. He and his mother have been apart for years. Sara refuses. She says it's a very bad idea. But then he gets the number from his older sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and goes to see his father with Aimee as moral support. Tommy (Kyle Chandler) is a slippery no-gooder, superficially charming perhaps, but just a bar bum. It's a very disappointing, disenchanting meeting.

Eventually Sutter expresses deep self-doubt. He has lived an irresponsible life. But Sara reassures him that he is a fundamentally good person, full of charity. This indeed is the aura and spirit he gives off. It's not just the buzz from the liquor.

Later Sutter has, after all, passed trigonometry and graduated from high school, and does not show up at the bus station to accompany Aimee to Philadelphia, but seems on the verge of shaping up. He appears at Aimee's school, and the movie stops there, without saving anything or ending anything. (The novel by Tim Tharp apparently has a more final, harsher ending. It has been reworked for the screen by Scott Neustedder and Michael H. Webber.) The film fizzles out a bit toward the end, and becomes more conventional. When it's got its rhythm going, it doesn't feel like anything else, no matter how basically familiar the material may be. But actually a film about a young man of seventeen or eighteen who has a serious drinking problem but isn't yet old enough for anybody to realize it has not been done that often.

What does it mean that James Ponsoldt has done three movies in a row about drinking? The last one, Smashed, was about a drunken couple who couldn't get it together, but they are adults. In The Spectacular Now, the protagonist is on the cusp; he could, presumably, go either way (but maybe not). Maybe Ponsoldt and his writers, who also wrote the adaptation of (500) Days of Summer, cheat a little bit to appeal to varous demographics -- to make a date movie, not just a movie for drug and alcohol counselors and therapists. This is part of how the movie fizzles out. But it flows with such splendid sureness through so much of its length, Teller is so good, and he and Woodley play so well in many long, fluid takes, that this is a movie to savor, no matter what. Surely it is close to the best indie film of the year so far, and Ponsoldt is working on another level this time, more in the mainstream, but still very much his own man. Highly recommended.

The Spectacular Now, 95 mins., debuted at Sundance, where Teller and Woodley won the Special Jury Prize for their joint performances, and showed at SXSW and other festivals. Limited release began 2 August 2013; SF Bay Area 16 August.

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