Two terrific leads make familiar plot devices feel fresh again.
The Spectacular Now
Considering James Ponsoldt’s first two films (Off the Black, Smashed) deal with alcoholism, it comes as no surprise that the subject is also baked into his third film, The Spectacular Now. This time around the theme is buried underneath the surface of a high school coming-of-age film that demonstrates there is more to life than living in the spectacular now. There is more to appreciate than to despise in The Spectacular Now, largely due to the outstanding performances from the two leads that transcend the film beyond just an ordinary young adult drama.
The Spectacular Now begins not unlike other of high school dramas, with an 18-year-old named Sutter (Miles Teller) recalling how the love of his life Cassidy (Brie Larson) recently broke up with him. Everyone in the school thought they were the perfect couple and together they were the life of every party. After a long night of partying in an attempt to free his mind from his recent breakup, Sutter wakes up on a random lawn to the sound of a timid girl named Aimee (Shailene Woodley) calling his name. Aimee recognizes Sutter from school, but the familiarity is not mutual. As with most high school stories the popular student is completely unaware the quiet nerdy student even exists. However, instead of viewing her as solely a rebound girl (like what typically happens before realizing they are good together) he takes a genuine interest in her from the very beginning.
Sutter is known as the sarcastic class clown at school and the person everyone wants to be around at parties. He subscribes to the ‘living in the now’ philosophy, though to a punishing fault. His literal interpretation of this viewpoint means that he takes absolutely nothing seriously. Slowly he begins to realize that his classmates not only think he is the class joker, but also someone who is destined to go nowhere in life. The ultimate eye-opener for him is when he meets his father for the first time since he was a child only to discover he does not want to windup like him.
When you first see Sutter drinking alcoholic beverages at parties you do not think much of it. After all, it is a somewhat socially acceptable occurrence regardless of the fact he is underage. It is when he busts out his flask seemingly everywhere (including his job!) that we begin to notice a much larger issue at hand. And so does he. Because of Aimee he begins to think about consequences for the first time.
Both of the main character’s weaknesses stem from their strengths. Sutter’s flaws are easily seen in plain sight, living in the moment without ever thinking about his actions. But his shortcomings are not as exasperating as Aimee’s are because he is a troubled teen who is smarter than he appears; whereas Aimee seems to contradict her intelligence by repeatedly making poor decisions. While her unconditional affection towards Sutter is inspiring most of the time, her willingness to always look the other way, turn the other cheek, and to forgive everything he does can be frustrating to watch. Specifically, there is an incident late in the film that would have been a wake up call for most people, or at the very least a chance for her character to stand up for herself for once. In the grand scheme of things however these are admittedly only minor complaints to otherwise enjoyable characters.
Because the story has so much depth to it—much more than your typical teenage drama—it is easy to tell The Spectacular Now is based on a novel. Each character in the film has a specific purpose not only to the story, but meaningfully intricate to one another as well. For these reasons it is easy to compare this production to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, another come-of-age story that successfully transitioned from novel to film.
Credit the writing for creating a redeeming character that makes you want to reach out to stop him from ruining his life, but also for allowing the character to be smart enough to so himself. You must also give credit to the two main leads who help make some of the familiar plot devices feel fresh again. Far too many teenage dramas are content with staying within the boundaries of the schoolyard, in this case placing all the focus on Sutter’s temptations with getting back together with his ex. Fortunately, The Spectacular Now introduces a darker side of the film that helps separate it from its competition.