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Film Review: The Spectacular Now

We live at a time where teenagers in cinema are portrayed in a few very distinct ways: you have fantasy-filled “vampire” movies, highly stylized “High School Musical”-type movies, and high school sex comedies in the vein of “American Pie.” While I’m not looking to make a commentary on the quality of these films, they typically deal with “teenage problems” through metaphor or humor, and the characters rarely feel like real kids facing real issues.

“The Spectacular Now,” directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter, tells the story of Sutter (Miles Teller), a high schooler whose life changes forever after a chance meeting with a girl on her paper route.

The hard-partying Sutter has been dating Cassidy (Brie Larson) on and off, but his destructive habits have caused a strain on the relationship and she ends things. A night of drinking the pain away finds Sutter lying in the middle of someone’s lawn, where he’s woken by Aimee (Shailene Woodley). Learning that this kind, selfless girl goes to the same school he does, Sutter decides to take the time to get to know her. Sutter’s friends are mystified as to why he’s hanging out with this “normal” girl, but he insists that maybe he wants to “help” her.

Throughout the movie, Sutter drinks and drinks and drinks, carrying around a flask of alcohol to add to whatever beverage he has. Sutter’s mother is rarely availble because her job at the hospital monopolozes her time, and his father is completely absent. He’s alone and lonely, and he fills that void with jokes, parties, and alcohol.

spectacular nowAimee begins to fill a bit of Sutter’s emptiness as she starts helping him with his geometry homework, their interaction eventually blossoming into a real relationship. However, because of Sutter’s issues with drinking, his baggage from Cassidy, and his questions about his absent father, the connection is fragile.

Aimee is an absolute sweetheart, and with everything happening in the film, you are at the edge of your seat because you don’t want Sutter to hurt this girl, which speaks to Woodley’s talented performance. Teller is also great in his role, which is certainly a roller coaster of emotion. While I was unimpressed with Teller’s work in “21 & Over,” it’s clear that it was the fault of the director, because he’s great in this film. The chemistry between Woodley and Teller is amazing.

Pondsoldt’s directing is magnificent and his choices make this film feel even more like a realistic portrayal of teenagers: the actors wore very little makeup, there were no crazy outfits or hair styles – everything just feels honest, true to the real thing. Weber and Neustadter’s dialogue feels exactly the same way – early on, conversations between Sutter and Aimee are simple and slightly awkward in a way that feels very real. The teenagers have real problems and real struggles; “The Spectacular Now” is definitely the most honest portrayal of teens I’ve seen in a long time.

Watch the Q&A from the screening at the Independent Film Festival of Boston.

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