Thursday, July 18, 2013

Is "The Spectacular Now" Too Simple for the Oscars?

Left to right: Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley
Last year, director James Ponsoldt's debut Smashed came out of nowhere only to announce the presence of new talent. It helped to raise potential Oscar nominations for Mary Elizabeth Winstead while painting a picture of alcoholism in a poignant, yet honest light. It is no wonder then that his follow-up The Spectacular Now skyrocketed to the top of my must-see list of 2013. With it opening in limited release August 2, it is as good of a time as any to take a look at the trailer and wonder if the coming of age story is capable of competing with the heavyweights.

Coming of age films don't necessarily do well at the Oscars, or at least in terms of the Best Picture race. It is arguable that one of the downsides of the category is that it is just as much about aesthetic as it is about heavy themes. With exception to Beasts of the Southern Wild,  films centered around youthful characters doesn't get accepted. Maybe it is because these stories could be seen as trivial compared to the heroic duties of Argo or Zero Dark Thirty. But along with Kings of Summer, The Spectacular Now is part of a small wave of high school stories with a lot of positive buzz surrounding them.

The issue with the category should not be the level of responsibility placed upon the protagonist, but the actual story. This is ironic since the Best Screenplay categories usually get more ambitious, offering prizes to stories that take chances like Django Unchained. Even then, majority of the films seems suspiciously more adult. You would have to go back to Juno in 2007 in order to find a Best Adapted Screenplay win for a story of a pregnant teenager. As of recent years, it has been a struggle. Many people heralded The Perks of Being a Wallflower as a great movie, but were disappointed when it didn't receive a nomination. True, Moonrise Kingdom did get a Best Original Screenplay nod, but was unfortunately missed in the Best Picture race for films like Amour.

Maybe it is just because the Academy is notoriously made up of an older audience who can't relate to more youthful films. At most, they have a soft spot for spiritual stories (Life of Pi) and racism (The Help). It doesn't help that The Spectacular Now almost feels like an exact copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, even using numerous cliches such as the line "This is our time." It looks really happy and positive, yet weighty subject matter, it does not. That would essentially be its downfall if there was any. 

Here's the trailer:

I will give it the benefit of the doubt that it falls under corny marketing. While the previews for Smashed were compelling, they felt very surface level and focused on humor that was secondary to the bigger themes. The quotes from varying critics spread throughout definitely suggest that this is going to be a big movie for its leading co-starts Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller. However, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I do not see either of them getting a nomination simply because of their age. As much that can possibly be heartwarming about the tale, this is a familiar story. My one beacon of hope is that Ponsoldt will continue the trend of making familiar stories feel fresh.

Noticeable things from the trailer includes my lack of expectations. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is credited as being in the film, and there isn't a trace of her here. I long for her to have an Oscar nomination simply because of her great performance in Smashed. However, some noticeable things that excite me and gives me hope is that the cast is somewhat established. Maybe not established in the sense of being chocked full of Academy Award nominees, but simply by a legitimate cast that already seems like one of the more appealing ensembles in a high school film from the past few years.

The most obvious is Woodley, who made a splash in Best Picture nominee The Descendants. That is the singular vision of hope that this film could rise beyond its already expected reputation. While Woodley herself hasn't quite earned the pedigree of her former co-stars, she has made a mark and if she is half as good as Winstead was in Smashed, then the film is going to be great. Also on the cast according to IMDb is Kyle Chandler (Zero Dark Thirty), Bob Odenkirk, and Brie Larson (who I hope delivers gold in Short Term 12). It is from the Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter who co-write the enjoyable (500) Days of Summer and adapted from the book by Tim Tharp. Not too bad.

But the problem long term with this film standing a chance is essentially that it doesn't have the aura about it. Where films like Rush and 12 Years a Slave have high caliber directors and performances, James Ponsoldt isn't considered either yet. At most, his work is understated and often seen as being too simply and without flare. It would take a bigger project for him to even be considered a high quality director. Even then, Benh Zeitlin's surprise Best Director nomination last year does give me hope that the Academy is beginning to recognize a wider array of talents and thus allowing smaller films to compete with the big leagues.

Either way, this is still going to be a film worth checking out. If you haven't seen Smashed, please do. It is a short and sweet look into alcoholism without being overbearing. It reflects why I believe that Ponsoldt is promising in terms of making ensemble casts that work well with each other and make the most out of their characters. For all of the downsides I find in The Spectacular Now trailer and my belief that it won't make it to the Oscars, I hold out hope simply because the cast is bigger and more recognizable. Now if only it had more weight in its subject.

Is The Spectacular Now going to be a surprise hit? Am I over blowing Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Oscar chances for this film? Is there room at the Oscars for breezy coming of age stories?

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