Saturday, August 31, 2013

Review: "The Spectacular Now" is One of the Most Endearing Looks at Growing Up

Left to right: Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley
Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to announce that with director James Ponsoldt's second feature The Spectacular Now, I am officially calling him one of the best upcoming directors of this decade. Along with Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines), Ponsoldt is a man who knows how to make characters vulnerable in exciting ways that don't detriment the story or rely on cheesy gimmicks. As familiar as coming of age stories are, the Smashed director's follow-up manages to find new ground through alcoholic teen Sutter (Miles Teller) and Amy's (Shailene Woodley) relationship which doesn't so much explore getting older, but the influences that the people in their lives play on their actions.

I cannot ever claim to be an expert on coming of age films, as most of them nowadays feel lackluster. For all of the interesting movements of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it felt too niche and the characters too restrained. It isn't anything new, but I realize that it lied largely in how the characters are allowed to exist. It is one thing to understand the motives and another to experience them, and Ponsoldt is two for two in making convincing portrayals of alcoholism from varying age groups. He does this not so much with clever stories, but vulnerability and lingering shots that allows everything to happen naturally.

Miles Teller is the real revelation of the film. Having played a young alcoholic now three times in a row (Project X and 21 & Over preceded this), it almost seemed like an odd way to be type-casted. The real enjoyment comes when you realize that what separates this performance from the other two lackluster comedies is that he is allowed to be a person. True, the first five minutes features him jumping into pools, having sex, and drinking anything in a cup; but it quickly evolves almost like a hangover of a kid sort of evolving and maturing. That isn't to say that the film has a bright light at the end of the tunnel, just that this is a coming of age film in understanding what your weaknesses are.

The other joy is in Shailene Woodley, who almost seems too innocent to be starring in a story of this nature. She is the main catalyst of the story and the reason that we are allowed to be enchanted and taken away by this romance. Her ability to perfect the awkward laugh almost serves more endearing than any line of dialogue or character reveal. Where most films rely on tight shots, there is an interaction early on in the film in which an extended take sees the most natural reaction between two characters all year. When Sutter tries to convince Amy to talk back to her mother, the innocence becomes clear. While Sutter is more of a joke than a bad boy, the relationship works not because either want to change each other, but just enjoy the company of others despite opposing goals.

If Smashed seemed too straight forward with its themes, then The Spectacular Now improves upon it. The tone isn't preachy and while we get sympathy for an alcoholic teen who never quite recovers, it is largely because the story doesn't force any morals or problems onto the audience. This is all Sutter's problems, and it helps that it almost plays out in a form of realism that doesn't rely on dramatics or big moments. It plays like life of a teen where almost everything and nothing is significant simultaneously. The film knows its characters and because of that, the story is allowed to show instead of tell.

Besides Teller and Woodley, the supporting cast is strong though sparse. With actors like Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andre Royo, Bob Odenkirk, and Kyle Chandler rounding out the cast, they all are allowed to have their moments. While everything doesn't work out for some of them, no one is demonized or punished. There isn't even the sense that what Sutter is doing should be glorified. The story allows the viewer to make up their own decisions, and by making everyone feel like they serve a purpose, makes this one exceptional example of great casting. Larson, who also is in Short Term 12, probably is the most fun as Sutter's ex-girlfriend who despite being broken up, never feels bitter. They still hang out and dance, which is nice.

If there is any problem with the film, it is the realism of the universe. Sutter is an impressive alcoholic and possibly the strongest portrayal of one this year. However, between drinking with his father and almost crashing a car, it does seem weird that there is little involvement of the police. While it helps to make the impact of the third act stronger, there is a sense that the film sacrificed this one idea to make the character seem more likable and get around the problematic angles of having to tell half the story behind a jail cell. I am fine with this exclusion and once you can overlook it, the story that is left is really impressive without being forceful about it.

The Spectacular Now manages to be endearing through just being honest. With impressive performances by the young cast, the film puts Ponsoldt on track to be one of the best new directors out there. His ability to craft characters is almost too impressive, as they all manage to carry small enduring tics that go the extra mile in a performance. Even if this plays like the young adult version of Smashed, it is so much more. It is romance and connecting over similar upbringings. It never feels bleak or forced and ends up giving an emotional punch of an ending, largely thanks to Teller's terrific performance.

In all honesty, I don't see this film making the final cut at the Oscars this upcoming year. Despite being one of the strongest that I have seen, there is little to give it an edge over Fruitvale Station or The Butler despite being superior. It isn't because the subject matter is too niche. In fact, this film succeeds by being frank about the routes of alcoholism and how it doesn't have to define you. It is probably just because the understated nature of the romance and the upcoming awards season is going to produce bigger and more pronounced competitors.

With that said, I would like to clarify one thing that has been on my wish list since seeing Smashed. I want Mary Elizabeth Winstead to get nominated just because she was so dynamic and enthralling. While she turns in a great performance here, it is hardly worth reciting my buzz around her. I will continue to wish her the best and hope that being ignored for Smashed will eventually be resolved, but not for this particular feature.

Though in an ironic turn of events, the main alcoholic played by Miles Teller, is another performer that I wish would get traction. He draws the line between cockiness and being sweet so perfectly that despite starring in subpar comedies before this, he is going to be one promising star in the next few years. His chemistry with the equally engaging Shailene Woodley is something of a revelation and is so far my favorite screen couple of the year. Their naivety together is endearing without being cheesy and that largely comes from two actors willing to just play it natural. While I doubt that this film will be a runaway hit, I hope it gets these two some more work.

I also just love James Ponsoldt now. He has directed easily two of my favorite movies of the past few years, and his take on cinema may be less artistic than other favorite Derek Cianfrance, but that plays to his advantage. He is a character director, and even the supporting cast seems perfect. Kyle Chandler's brief screen time is equal parts engaging and depressing as Sutter's father. Not bad for someone who has become a great character actor in films like Zero Dark Thirty.

While I don't believe that The Spectacular Now will get the credit it deserves, I believe that it will be hard to not see it and think that it is at very least full of a cast with promising futures. I can imagine almost everyone here going on to bigger and (not necessarily) better things as long as they keep the charisma. I'm even excited for Ponsoldt to just make another movie, even if it is about alcoholism. This is a film that pulls at the emotions without seeming trite. It is a story that feels like an essential coming of age story if just because the performances feel more real than any teen performance we've seen in recent years.

Is James Ponsoldt capable of being one of the next greats? Will Miles Teller ever be taken seriously? How will The Spectacular Now play in the long run and does it have what it takes to be a classic coming of age story?

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