Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #5. "The Spectacular Now" (2013)

Scene from The Spectacular Now
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

The Spectacular Now
Released: August 2, 2013
Release Number: 5
Directed By: James Ponsoldt
Written By: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (Screenplay), Tim Tharp (Novel)
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler
Plot: A hard-partying high school senior's philosophy on life changes when he meets the not-so-typical "nice girl."
Major Awards: 0

The first year of A24 featured an impressive roller coaster of talent inside projects that were at worst still memorable. Despite not having more than five films to their credit, they had established themselves as the studio that could court controversy while appealing to a wide audience, whether it be hip teens or more mature drama hidden inside absurd comedies. Closing out their first year was director James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now, which lacks a hook on par with Disney princesses going bad in Spring Breakers, or Charlie Sheen bearing his soul in A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III. All that the Fall release had was a love story involving teenage alcoholism and a great director who was on his second hit at Sundance Film Festival. It may lack the immediacy of the others, but it showed that even when tackling coming of age stories, A24 wasn't going to settle for something conventional.

Things were looking good for Ponsoldt after his previous film, Smashed. With a Sundance jury prize along with a Spirit Award nomination for star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, he had achieved a distinguished status in the indie film world. It lead to A24 giving him a deal in 2012. Having made a film about alcoholism, there was concern of what he would do next. He eventually landed on a script that was adapted from Tim Tharp's eponymous novel The Spectacular Now. It was another story about alcoholism, which added caution to doing the project. Would it just be a retread of Smashed? Ponsoldt eventually came to the realization that it wasn't so much the subject matter that he needed to worry about, but the authenticity and actual story. Despite being similar stories in terms of addiction, they both approached the character themes from different angles.

Ponsoldt picked Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller after seeing The Descendants and Rabbit Hole respectively. He believed that Woodley had a naturalism that would give her character a compelling dynamic. Meanwhile, Teller looked to be able to balance being unlikable with a more empathetic core. Following The Descendants, Woodley considered dropping out of acting, but found herself in love with the script. Ponsoldt's only concern was that their chemistry was going to be off. As a result, he had a lunch meeting where the two were initially timid to talk to each other. Later that day, he found them talking in the parking lot and bonding over the past few hours. They would go on to be close friends both in the movie and other places, notably in the sci-fi franchise Divergent.

Much like the story, Ponsoldt believed that this was a story that needed to rely on naturalism and homeliness. While there weren't any specifics to detail the story's location, he chose his hometown of Athens, Georgia because he felt that it fit the vibe. The Spectacular Now didn't take place in a big city, and he loved the familiarity of Athens. Shooting began in July 2012 and filmed for 25 days. The film featured both Woodley and Teller's first sex scenes, which was shot in a single long take. This technique was actually normal for the film, as Ponsoldt loved to have the characters improvise and occasionally shot scenes that went over three minutes without a single cut. It helped to capture the natural chemistry between the stars, which included plenty of natural reactions of smiling, laughing, and awkward pauses. They felt and acted like teenagers, which became one of the most noted achievements in the reviews. Ponsoldt claimed that he was inspired by films like The 400 Blows and wanted emotion to guide the story, and it shows in every character's performance, including Kyle Chandler who was only on set for three days.

The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Much like Smashed, it received great reviews. This lead to a late summer release on August 2. It premiered in four theaters with $197,415, averaging $49,354 per screen. It would eventually expand to 770 theaters and earned $6.9 million internationally. With a positive rating of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, it was also A24's highest rated film of 2013, beating second highest rated Ginger & Rosa by 13%. The film received apt praise from critics who praised its authenticity of teenagers, even comparing Teller to John Cusack in Say Anything. In what is a coincidental honor, The Spectacular Now also is one of the last movies that famed movie critic Roger Ebert reviewed before his death on April 4, 2013. It wasn't just a positive review, but one that gave the film a perfect score of 4 out of 4 stars, saying that "Here is a lovely film about two high school seniors who look, speak and feel like real 18-year-old middle-American human beings. Do you have any idea how rare that is?" Much like Smashed, Ponsoldt's movie received two Spirit Award nominations, including one for Best Female Lead for Woodley (the only other A24 movie nominated was Spring Breakers for Best Cinematography).

The story of Ponsoldt's involvement with A24 isn't over yet. He would return in a few years with another critically acclaimed movie called The End of the Tour. In 2013, he solidified himself as one of the most promising voices of independent cinema by keeping the camera rolling and letting his characters develop naturally. It may not have a gimmick on par with the studio's first four movies, but it has the biggest heart. By stripping away the teenage rom com tropes, he found something more important and immediate. He found a balance between growing older and appreciating youth. Once again with excellent performances by Woodley and Teller, A24 has shown what can be done when talented voices are allowed to test their hand at making the movies that they want made. How would year two be? Bigger and better, naturally. What better way to start than by having Jake Gyllenhaal fight himself as an Enemy?

Up Next: Enemy (2014)

No comments:

Post a Comment