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Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 03:30 pm

Realism propels Spectacular Now

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Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now
PHOTO COURTESY A24

I grew up during the age of the John Hughes film and I seemed to be the only one who didn’t jumped on the bandwagon that proclaimed him the voice of my generation. While everyone was raving about how Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were timely movies that accurately portrayed the laments of the displaced generation of the 1980s, I kept wondering who the angsty teens in these films actually represented. They sure didn’t act like anyone I knew and they certainly, with their upper middle class surroundings, didn’t run in the circles I did. Sure, the problems the characters faced of feeling alienated were commonplace but the disconnect between the world they lived in and my own made Hughes’ movies seem disingenuous. The impact of the issues he was examining were muted because of the films’ settings. There was a calculated quality to the director’s work that prevented me from accepting any of his movies as being as genuine as others took them to be.

By some miracle, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now achieves the sense of honesty that proved elusive in Hughes’ films. There’s a sense of realism here, or as much as can be expected in a fictional movie, that provides a degree of recognition for the viewer that allows them to immediately buy into the troubles of two ordinary teens struggling with falling in love for the first time. While some of the credit for this should go to writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber in their adaptation of the novel by Tim Tharp, it’s the two leads that make this a cut above other films of this sort. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley bring such honesty to their roles.

Teller is Sutter, a high school senior who’s the life of the party wherever he goes, primarily because he puts forth the notion that he doesn’t have a care in the world. He’s got a beautiful girlfriend, an easy job at a men’s clothing store and doesn’t have a care in the world. He’s “100 percent serious about not being serious” and that carefree attitude makes him the envy of his peers. Trouble is, deep down Sutter knows that he’s nothing but hot air and to take off the edge of being a fraud, he drinks. Whiskey is his drug of choice and it’s never far away. However, after a particularly bad night, he wakes up on the lawn of Aimee (Woodley), a wallflower younger than him who he never really noticed before. Yet, after helping him find his car, as well as lending a hand with his math homework, the young lady is on Sutter’s radar and before you know it, he’s asked her to prom.

As we see their relationship grow we become increasingly aware that this movie is special because none of the key moments in the film, which would have been embellished with music or grand gestures in lesser productions, seem forced. Ponsoldt provides a deft touch here, creating a tone that’s conveyed by the natural performances from his two leads. Teller and Woodley are able to convey a sense of discovery about each other and their experiences as they each awkwardly navigate love for the first time. There’s a sense of confusion, a sense of wonder, a sense of excitement and a sense of resignation that these two inhabit at various times in the film and none of it feels calculated or manipulative, but rather honest in a way that’s too difficult for other movies to capture.

While the two youngsters are quite good, they are ably supported by veterans throughout, particularly Kyle Chandler, who plays Teller’s wayward father, a cautionary symbol for the young man if he’s wise enough to see it, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his mother who doesn’t really seem to know how to handle her son. They ably bring a sense of quiet dramatic heft to their scenes but this is Teller and Woodley’s show. They hold nothing back in bringing these complex teens to life and while there may be times when we don’t particularly like or agree with what they do, we recognize ourselves in Sutter and Aimee. Their faults and assets prove to be all too familiar to ignore.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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