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The Spectacular Now

Summer.  In many ways the season of youth.  As much in the movie theater as on the beach.  So, perhaps not such a surprise of a high summer that a  film would come along about young love.  The surprise, the irony of The Spectacular Now is that it's every bit as subtle, as substantial, as replete with strong acting as any Oscar bait likely to be released between now and year's end.  Hiding in plain sight among the summer's forgettable fare, for your consideration, The Spectacular Now.

The irony of the film, the third feature of director James Ponsoldt, written by Scott Neaustatder and Michael H. Weber, extends beyond its quality and timing of its appearance.   When the film's title appears on screen a few minutes in - huge block white letter on a black background - it's already apparent that darkness is lurking around the edges of the bright life of high school gadabout Sutter Keely (Miles Teller).

The high school world of The Spectacular Now is one of the many things that the script and story of Neaustatder and Weber (based on the novel of the same title by Tim Tharp) seems to get right.  There's a tendency in films that take us weaving through the gatherings of teenagers to do so either pruriently or judgmentally; as either leering, envious oldsters or those freaked out by the kids these days.  The Spectacular Now does neither.  Consistent with the assured, unobtrusive direction of Mr. Ponsoldt, the film views the parties, the rituals impassively, with empathy and more than a little insight.

Sutter Keely is, in a sense, the king of all he surveys, as he ambles about parties, roams the halls of his high school. Not overbearing royalty assome kids in that position might be. Neither is he an athlete nor (by the longest of stretches) an exceptional student.  But he's rich in the currency of his high school society:  full of charming bluff, inveterately social and not merely a participant in the alcohol-soaked revels of his contemporaries, but very much a leader.  Deep none of it may be, as Sutter late in the film concedes, but sincere.  He's a big-hearted young man.  When he exclaims at his senior prom, "I love these people," you believe him.

Of course, the trouble with loving one's high school world too much is rather obvious.  The built-in expiration and all,  the term limit.  All the more troublesome for the likes of Sutter, for whom the drinking never seems to stop.  When it's not a plastic cup of beer pulled from a keg at a party, it's a draw from a flask that is always close at hand, a ubiquitous soda fountain cup that bears more than soda.

A particularly hard night of drinking and an eventual blackout lands Sutter in the front yard of Aimee (Shailene Woodley).  Typical of his charm and go with the flow mentality, Sutter joins Aimee on her early morning paper route, the secondary purpose of finding his car lost among a growing rapport between the very popular boy and the unassuming girl.

There is a good deal right about The Spectacular Now.  But so much depends upon the rich, versatile work of its two young leads and their chemistry together.  Both Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley have had significant roles in dramas of the past few years.  Teller played the haunted teen in the under-seen Rabbit Hole (2010), while Woodley was the oldest daughter of George Clooney's beleaguered husband and father in The Descendants (2011).  Each was good in those roles, but Teller and Woodley are called upon to do much more in carrying the action in The Spectacular Now.

But for the affability of Teller, walking across the solid ground laid for him by screenwriters Neaustatder and Weber, Sutter Keely might well come across an empty charmer, even insufferable.  Or as Marcus ((Dayo Okeniyi), his rival for the affections of ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), says, "You're not the joke everyone thinks."  Sutter Keely is none-the-less charming.  Kids are drawn to the bright lights of personality as much as adults (or vice versa).  Confidence, or the strong illusion thereof, is alluring.  But the story never gets lost in Sutter's exploits.  Ponsoldt is economical as he demonstrates the boy's restlessness, his need for distraction, even in moments of apparent happiness or assurance.  Eventually, the big crash finally does come for Sutter, as it must.  Typical of the general subtlety of the script, that crash is emotional.  The more literal accident, which you rightly fear as you witness all the drinking and driving, turns out to be minor.  The wall finally hit is one of Sutter's own making.  Or as he writes in a college admission essay, he's had no great adversity but himself.  When reality can no longer be denied, when Sutter finally breaks down, you see the range and vulnerability of which Miles Teller is capable.

Every bit Teller's match is Shailene Woodley.  Her Aimee is in some ways the inverse to the character she played in The Descendants.  As George Clooney's daughter, hers was the hard surface of an angry teenager that concealed a young woman of surprising heart beneath.  One of the surprises of Alexander Payne's film was seeing Alexandra King (Woodley) actually becoming her father's ally, when all early signs pointed to typical parent/teenager friciton.  All the more impressive then that Ms. Woodley can, in a sense, reverse the garment of character and create a young woman so believably soft and amiable on the surface, with a survivor's steel beneath.

Like that of Miles Teller, the performance of Shailene Woodley is impressively natural.  It's one of the reasons the two exude the strong chemistry their characters are supposed to develop.  The dialog is spoken in the way it might between these two kids:  at times flowing easily, at times halting, laughter following words misspoken or overlapping with those of the other.  The same naturalism extends to the physical relationship between Sutter and Aimee.  The Spectacular Now has one of the best sex scenes dealing with teenagers that I've seen put to film.  Partly for its discretion and brevity.  Partly for the realism: the pain, the moments of awkwardness, the accounting for birth control.  The easy realism can be seen even as the two young actors are walking and having a conversation.  Woodley laughs and moves a branch out of the way as Teller is in the midst of one of Sutter's semi-rants.  Not the sort of thing that could have been in the script, but the two young actors handle it seamlessly.

In each of his three films, director James Ponsoldt has demonstrated an attention to detail that is even more a matter of character than mise en scene (though he usually gets that right as well, so much so that you might not notice interiors and settings of scene, so realistic do they seem).  While he didn't write The Spectacular Now, he did write or co-write his first two features, Off The Black (2006) and Smashed (2012).  In Off The Black, there is a brief scene at a high school reunion in which a woman speaks of the film's somewhat mythical lead character.  With just a few lines of dialog, you feel you're on your way to knowing this woman, living a much fuller life in that minute or so of screen time than does many  a secondary character in Hollywood (or medicore indie) film who appear throughout a story.

With his current feature, that admirable attention to character plays out with two of Sutter's family members.  At first sight of Sutter's sister, Tara (Nicci Faires), we would seem to have a brittle woman holding the perfection of her life in a death grip, a particular kind of  flight from the emotional squalor one's family life.  In a lesser film, she would be a soulless yuppie.  But within the brief dinner scene, we see Tara's expression change and soften as Aimee speaks of her dead father.  In a telling, later scene, she and Sutter speak of their own father, long out of the picture.  That exchange ends with the older sister asking her wandering brother to stop by for lunch sometime.  The loneliness behind the perfect facade of a life obvious.

Sutter finally reconnects, sort of, with his long-absent father, Tommy (Kyle Chandler), after Tara gives him the contact information that his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) had been withholding for his own good.  I haven't seen all or even most of Kyle Chandler's work (including the series Friday Night Lights), but I can't imagine he's ever been better than as Sutter's stunted, self-centered father.  He comes blinking into the daylight when Sutter and Aimee appear at an agreed-upon time, one that Tommy has obviously forgotten soon after hanging up the phone.  Shorter than his son in stature, the elder Keely seems also stooped by his life experience.  It is painful to hear his loser's faux eloquence, the fulsome praise he dispenses in the absence of an ability to really focus on another person.  The father is a minor character, economically though no less sharply drawn.  Chandler does the rest.  

The aforementioned college essay on which Sutter labors, both drunk and sober, is used as a framing device for the story.  It's one cliche in a film that otherwise avoids them.  Even as Sutter tells us through the device of the essay that he's getting himself together (and we're spared the classic getting my life together musical montage), The Spectacular Now ends in a moment of pregnant ambiguity that makes no concessions to a definitive ending, happy or sad.

Less ambiguous is the encouraging growth and career of James Ponsoldt.  Like other American directors flirting with the mainstream - Debra Granik (Winter's Bone), Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff and the upcoming Night Moves) and Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud) - Ponsoldt provides some hope for the future of filmmaking in this country.  None of these are exactly avant garde artists, but they occupy a deeply satisfying ground between much of the disposable output of Hollywood and the frequent navel gazing of what passes for indie cinema.  Mr. Ponsoldt's latest film, like the encouraging work of his contemporaries, makes for a now, if not spectacular, certainly much more satisfying.  



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