The Spectacular Now
American teen cinema, if I can call it that, has been displaying an unhealthy obsession lately. I’m not talking about the commoditization of female sexuality, although we could talk about that, and I’m not talking about unrealistic depictions of teenage sophistication, although we could talk about that, and I’m not talking about an overriding focus on the upper classes, although we could certainly talk about that.
I’m talking about an obsession with John Hughes. Across would-be cinematic paeans to inclusion like "Easy A" and "Pitch Perfect," the characters stop and literally extol the virtues of the Breakfast Club’s denizens, of Ferris Bueller, of kisses over sixteen candles. There’s a lot of selective memory when it comes to John Hughes. We conveniently ignore the fact that if his movies were made today, our culture would vilify them. "Ferris Bueller" is the movie about the middle-class white kid who slut-shames his sister, has his car stolen by evil Hispanic men, does whatever the hell he wants, and gets away with it, because he’s just that cool. I mean, hell, just look at "Weird Science" under a feminist lens. Need I say more?
And yet we act like his work is the height of sophistication for films about teenagers. James Ponsoldt’s "The Spectacular Now," strongly written by "(500) Days of Summer" collaborators Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from a novel by Tim Tharp, acts as the corrective. I’m not going to say that their work achieves the lyrical naturalism of the Doinel films by Truffaut, or the novelistic messiness of something like "Margaret," or the lush transcendence of 50’s melodramas. But with its surprisingly perceptive emotional complexity, its resistance to easy conclusions or clichéd sequences, and its classically composed, heavily codified frames, it comes much closer to those classics than you’d expect.
Miles Teller stars, and he’s not Ferris Bueller, or Lloyd Dobler, or any of the other collections of perfect-guy stereotypes we’ve seen featured in these movies. He’s a guy we all knew from high school or college: unerringly self-confident, the life of every party, outgoing to a downright admirable extent, and consistently hammered out of his fucking mind. One night, his ultimate-people-person attitude gets him in trouble: to help his buddy hook up with a female friend, he takes the ladies’ second out of the equation, drawing her into a legitimately platonic conversation. Unfortunately, Sutter’s girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson,) catches him in the act - and she doesn’t buy his proclamations of chastity.
Sutter, downbeat and drunk, ends up meeting Aimee, evocatively played by Shailene Woodley as a girl whose self-confidence has been browbeaten to such an extent that she has no idea how pretty she actually is. We all knew this person, too - or, more likely, we passed her in the hallways, vaguely aware of her existence, thinking that maybe she would look a bit nicer with a touch of makeup. Woodley gets it, she hits every moment with breathtaking honesty: the shock that comes when she realizes Sutter may actually be attracted to her, the appreciative look in her eyes when he takes her to bed, and the excited willingness with which she begins to imitate his traits, even his worst ones.
What follows is less like a plot, and more like a series of events: Sutter convinces Aimee to fight against her mother’s townie sensibilities, and to escape to a college town, while Aimee convinces Sutter to hunt down his estranged father. Yet it never becomes a movie about lost souls improving each other’s lives. The movie is excruciatingly honest about class, about the way it reverberates through generations, about the parts of ourselves that we erase in attempts to escape it. I’ve seen other critics make this out to be a "child teaches the father" movie, but the characters are left in positions far too tenuous and damaged to support that reading. At the inevitable graduation sequence, we get another glimpse at Cassidy, celebrating happily with her parents around her diploma. Sutter and Aimee are left alone, their only support found in the flask.
Director James Ponsoldt does give in to genre demands a few times. It’s as if he’s trying to offset the too-real looks in his actor’s faces - in Teller’s scarred face, in Woodley’s pained visage - with a few Hughesian moments. And so there is an unfortunate montage near the finale, coupled with one or two excessive lines of laughably on-the-nose dialogue. (Bob Odenkirk features wonderfully as a would-be surrogate father to Sutter, but is stuck verbally rehashing themes every time he’s on screen.)
But Ponsoldt also films the picture with elegance. The direction couldn’t be further away from his handheld, grim-looking "Smashed." Here he’s lensing on 35mm, and he uses the texture offered by the format to his advantage - bathing a fraught encounter between Sutter and Cassidy in grey shadows, housing Aimee and Sutter under impossibly green trees for their first encounter. After the rough-and-tumble look of his last outing, the aspiration towards classical photography comes as nothing less than a shock. One bedroom sequence recalls shots from "The Night of the Hunter," a prom scene has the camera dollying past tables and decorations as if it were shot by Max Ophuls. The compositions and photography break no new ground, but Ponsoldt’s aspiring to give these kids artful frames to play around it.
The shots are clean, but the ideas and actions and feelings depicted are messy, they’re not easily articulated - they’re lifelike. There’s this incredible, vivid sex scene between Sutter and Aimee, tastefully composed, but utterly stripped away from any notions of sentiment. It simultaneously feels humanist and downright subversive. Sex scenes in American movies, they only seem to want to be "hot," in that music-video-cologne-commercial sort of way. Maybe audiences aren’t ready for this. Ponsoldt, in depicting these two kids, pleasuring each other, having a good time, and without any sort of comeuppance or regret afterwards - It almost seemed too much. The crowd I saw it with couldn’t stop giggling. But I nearly had tears in my eyes.
That’s the movie that "The Spectacular Now" is, despite the intermittent plays for mass market value, despite the occasional concessions made to mainstream tastes. It doesn’t pretend the sex between Aimee and Sutter is perfect, and it has no interest in pretending that it is - but never once does it think that their tenuous attitudes or their awkwardness or their self-conscious fumbling are bad things. It sees them at their best, their worst, and their most unguarded, and it accepts them during every moment. And, when there journey concludes, the book is left open; the filmmakers refusing to pander with pat solutions or multiplex-ready happy endings. It’s not afraid to follow them to dark places. It doesn’t want to evoke pleasant feelings, it wants to find visceral ones.
Ponsoldt clearly loves these characters; specifically because they’re not archetypes, not ideals, not simply means to a happy-ending. They’re real people, with real flaws. Aimee and Sutter have their first kiss at the end of an incredibly long take - many minutes long - and as they break away from each other, the camera operator seems to legitimately collapse, the camera tilting and bobbing as he falls to the ground. The mistake is left in the film.