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.