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THE SPECTACULAR NOW (review)

Review by Caitlyn Thompson
Produced by Tom McNulty, Shawn Levy, 
Michelle Krumm, Andrew Lauren
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Screenplay by Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Based on The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp
Starring Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, 
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 
Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk

A 24 / Rated R

Rarely does a movie capture the nuances of relationships and maturation as poignantly as director, James Ponsoldt’s, The Spectacular Now.

Adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel by the (500) Days of Summer writing team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, The Spectacular Now tells the story of easy going charmer, Sutter Keely (Miles Taylor).

Sutter is not particularly good looking, not the captain of the football team, not the class president; but his devastating charm makes him one of the most popular kids in school.

Sutter seems to have it all including a sexy girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson). They are the IT couple who screw, smoke, drink and party their way through high school.

They live in the now.

However, that is not enough for Cassidy, who wants to prepare for the future and build a relationship that is not solely based on having a good time. But Sutter is not interested in growth and thus despite the complicated love Cassidy feels for him, she breaks up with Sutter for her own good.

Sutter drinks (and drinks) from heartbreak and wakes up blacked out on the lawn of classmate, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She is the opposite of Cassidy – unpopular, shy, innocent, and naïve. Naturally, sparks begin to fly. Aimee’s uneventful life transforms by Sutter’s entry. Suddenly she is going to parties and drinking with a popular boy on her arm.

Woodley is an actress I’m keeping my eye on. Her ability to portray authentic hurt, joy and frustration (especially without being a cliche teenager) in The Spectacular Now and The Descendants is brilliant. She has such awareness of her gestures and subtle facial cues that are indicative of an incredibly smart young woman. Huge fan.

I feel similarly to Miles Taylor. He has a charming and hurt air about him that he knows how to play up and down. He has tremendous presence when he needs to (think back to 21 and Over), but also, a disarming tragedy about him presented subtly in The Spectacular Now and even more heartbreakingly in Rabbit Hole.

I think these two are brilliant and am excited to see how the young actors evolve in the coming years.

It is a testament to the quality of the acting and writing that we are never sure what to think of Sutter and Aimee. Does Sutter genuinely fall for her but play it cool to his friends (and himself); or is he a sociopath, who cunningly deceives Aimee while never being interested in her? Is Aimee willfully blind to how Sutter is no good for her because the end of their relationship would lead to her banishment back into the life of a high school nobody? It is this mixture of deception and self-deception, and blurring of performance and reality, that makes the characters so complex and their relationship so engaging.

They are both addicted to each other. Sutter to Aimee’s earnest love – she treats him like a rock-star and is giddy at slightest of his attention. She does not demand much of him and unquestioningly joins him living in the now. Aimee uses Sutter to replace her sci-fi books as an escape from the dullness of her life and as an outlet for her passion and emotion. And yet, they are genuinely touching and understanding of each other. Their moments together are charged with chemistry and are a joy to watch on screen even in their moments of misery.

The film also deftly deals with the issue of alcoholism. A paper cup filled with coke and booze, or a flask is never far from Sutter’s hands – like a security blanket. But the props never dominate. The film avoids the after-school-special sermonizing.

Alcohol fits in neatly with the movie’s larger themes of escape. Why desire to become an adult when those adults around you are so miserable? When marriages and economies seem to always implode, how can the young be excited and motivated about the future? Instead, they escape into the wonderful now. And drink it into a blur.

I’d like to simply mention that Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler are brilliant. Their roles are brief and performed with beautiful frustration, and a subtle aching passion. The whole cast rotates around Sutter, and each role has a delicate sadness that makes Sutter’s dwindling control all the more tragic. Leigh and Chandler only add to the complexity and swirling emotion. And they do so without preaching. One is beaten and tired and just trying to make things work, while the other is rude, self-centered and most painfully, still a bit charming in his eyes. Wonderful.

The movie does not offer the viewer easy answers. There is no righteous character that fixes everything and shows us the way forward. Everyone in the movie is flawed. But that makes it all the more authentic. The movie’s complex characters and depth make it one that will be a joy to watch over and over again.  

The Spectacular Now is a welcome break from the CGI-enhanced superficiality of the current crop of summer blockbusters. I highly recommend you go watch it. And consider bringing tissues.

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