THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE SPECTACULAR NOW"
Depending on whom you ask, adolescence is either the best time in a person's life or the worst. Those who believe it's the worst tend to make the greatest movies. So many fantastic coming-of-age films have been released over the decades, from The Graduate to, most recently, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When they really hit, such movies speak to the confusion and insecurity so many of us felt in our teenage years. The Spectacular Now, directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed), is one of the best modern coming-of-age tales, told with depth and, more importantly, wisdom.
At first, we think this is going to be a generic teen romance. Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a self-described good-time boy, always the one who's drunk and leading the revelry at a party. He has a meet-cute with Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) after she finds him passed out on somebody's front lawn. They begin hanging out together, but it's not as simple as boy-meets-girl. Sutter is drinking at other times, too, using it to hide the pain he feels over an absentee father (Kyle Chandler) and a mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who won't talk about him. He also pines for his ex, Cassidy (Brie Larson), even going so far as to use Aimee to make her jealous. Not intentionally – he's too sensitive a guy for that – but almost subconsciously. Sutter's whole happy-go-lucky persona is a facade. He's actually a messed-up kid who knows he's messed-up and can't deal with the shame of it unless he's pouring booze down his throat. Aimee sees the decency inside him, though, and as their friendship blossoms into romance, she proves to be an inspiration for him to start sorting his life out.
The thing that's most admirable about The Spectacular Now is its fearlessness. Beautifully written by (500) Days of Summer scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on Tim Tharp's novel), the film doesn't shy away from complicated issues, nor does it attempt to suggest there are easy resolutions. If anything, the longer the story goes on, the more we see how complicated Sutter's life really is. This is not just a kid going through normal teen angst; he's genuinely damaged as a result of a broken home and a father who wasn't there. Like a lot of young people, he assumes there is a path of unhappiness he's simply meant to go down. Only when he meets Aimee does he begin to realize that he can alter that path. That said, Aimee is not your average Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype who exists solely to help the male lead be a better guy. Far from it. Aimee has her own complications, perhaps not as severe as Sutter's, but there nonetheless. Essentially marginalized by her peers, she falls so hard for the popular Sutter that she gets into the trap of thinking she can save him from himself. The Spectacular Now deals with his drinking, yet also, with effective subtlety, addresses the issue of codependency. Most amazingly, the film never once sets a foot in melodrama. It simply tackles tough issues with honesty.
Miles Teller (who was so great opposite Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole) is the perfect Sutter Keely. The actor is able to register all the complex, painful emotions going on inside his character, but he's also completely credible in the moments where Sutter is hiding those emotions. In Teller's hands, we really believe that this guy is able to fool everyone around him into thinking he's happy when, in fact, he's dying inside. Teller shares wonderful chemistry with Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), who avoids making Aimee a “good girl” cliché. Instead, she gives us a young woman who is genuinely good-hearted, but not completely without edge. (Aimee is more than happy to sip from Sutter's flask.) Woodley also suggests the heartache that comes from watching someone you love suffer. We can feel Aimee's desire for Sutter to experience the joy he outwardly, falsely projects, as well as the pain she faces upon realizing that he can't. Both actors give sincere, deeply nuanced performances that draw us even further into the already compelling story.
The Spectacular Now is the sort of film that envelops you. The best coming-of-age movies stop feeling like movies after a while. You get so involved in them that it's almost as though you're a teenager all over again, standing alongside friends as they go through some sort of drama. And like adolescence itself, the picture has moments of great humor, great sadness, and great meaning. It understands what it's like to be an adolescent in crisis. Those qualities, coupled with the excellent performances, cause it to burrow into your mind so that you're still thinking about it days later and itching to see it again.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Spectacular Now is rated R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality - all involving teens. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!