By Andrew McClure, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 4, 2013
Amid all the superficialities of high school, there’s something real and foretelling about those four years: the bullshit classes, the hard classes; the odd gym teacher, the cool one; the druggies, the straight-edges; the sex, the non-sex. It’s merely life in microcosmic form, where a line of chalk distinguishes elite from average, yet everyone’s equally flawed. For most, the epiphany monsoons in around late junior year, when it hits them — this “future” shit sort of matters. In the poignant “The Spectacular Now,” two unlikely sweethearts cross but ignore the integral lesson that each offers the other.
“The Spectacular Now”
At State and Rave
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For his third feature-length release, filmmaker James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) might’ve had a drinking problem himself as we see booze integrate and disintegrate his leads from “Smashed” to his new “Spectacular.” He uses scotch and brandy as a link to connect people in a basement-party sense but also to peel back the layers of their masks, to zoom in on their unadulterated sentiments. He does this particularly well as he paints vulnerability all over his “to care is to surrender” leading loudmouth.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, “Footloose”) is the man, the homie, the dude, the coolest. His confidence in his car, naturally coiffed hair, blonde girlfriend and undeserved job at a men’s clothier balance his outward confidence. When push comes to shove, his girlfriend dumps him for the jocky, otherwise-perfect class president. Sutter’s only clue to his recent dumping is that he needs to look beyond the present, a clear problem he considers his biggest asset. Unfortunately, that asset entails something grimmer and in disguise as an 80-proof stress reliever. Kid’s got a problem, and the abrupt trauma leaves him in despair.
Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”) is the supreme foil of Sutter: She has one friend, likes sci-fi books, doesn’t go to parties and is a virgin. To boot, her dad died and she lives in a one-story flat with a belligerent mother. Unlike Sutter, she hasn’t undergone a recent hardship like breakups because, frankly, her life’s pretty simple with few moving parts so emotional collision is rare for Aimee. They make the happiest, saddest, afflicted and entirely unaware couple. And it’s good.
Film whiners love to bitch about believability in casting choices, but for just reason. Some directors like to idealize while others seem to strip off the glitter so severely that we’re left with skin and bones and a quivering lip. Ponsoldt manages a happy medium where Sutter’s cool, but not enviably so, and Aimee’s beautiful, but not in a describable way. This allows us to engross in the story, a story that can be told without second-guessing Aimee’s chiseled facial features or Sutter’s alluring, scratchy voice. You never have to grimace in this coming-of-ager. You’re in the good hands of Ponsoldt.
Teen flicks usually tell viewers how to feel through sappy scores or original soundtracks. You’ve screened too many “American Pie”-like pics if the Coldplay-backed final scenes extract tears. “Spectacular” skips the piano and emo lyrics and instead delivers slow, heartfelt moments. During their drive back from visiting Sutter’s estranged father for the first time, a loaded Sutter swerves horribly into the left lane almost silencing he and Aimee. A voice-cracking Sutter demands Aimee to get out of the car because she can’t see that he “is bad for her.” No song or church organ would enhance this scene; the longer the raw silence, the better.
Sometimes a small town can spin a yarn better than Gotham. And that’s precisely what “Spectacular” sets out to do: use all the core ingredients of a high-school stew devoid of any superfluous salt, trans fat or sugar cubes. And Woodley provides the best bite.