Friday, August 23, 2013

The Spectacular Now: Dangerous Liaison

The Spectacular Now (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, alcohol abuse and some sensuality, all involving teens
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.23.13

We must be our own best advocates.

It’s a difficult, often bitter lesson. Sometimes we get lucky, and somebody comes along who believes in us wholeheartedly, unreservedly.

Aimee (Shailene Woodley), never having enjoyed the thrill of romance, falls heavily in
love with Sutter (Miles Teller), despite knowing full well that he's bad news. Indeed,
everybody in school knows about Sutter's self-destructive tendencies. The question,
then: When he goes down in flames, will he take her with him?
Sometimes that isn’t enough.

At first blush, 18-year-old Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) seems the life of every party: vibrant, good-natured, aggressively spontaneous. He enjoys a relationship with Cassidy (Brie Larson), one of the most popular girls in their high school; they’ve obviously been intimate for awhile.

But Sutter’s glad-handing exterior masks uncharted depths of pain and uncertainty that he has absolutely no desire to confront. He’s a smart kid who doesn’t bother to study, much to the dismay of a concerned math teacher (Andre Royo). Sutter is left on his own too much, because his single mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Sara) often works double-shifts just to keep a roof over their heads.

And Sutter drinks. Far too much, far too often. He is, in fact, a teen alcoholic, rarely seen without the shiny hip flask that he regards as a badge of ultra-coolness. He’s cheerfully on the fast-track to nowhere, a road he has traveled for several years. Doesn’t bother him a bit: If confronted, he smiles broadly and extols the virtues of living solely for the moment, for the “spectacular now.”

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who did such a marvelous job with 2009’s (500) Days of Summer — their own original script — have done some equally sensitive work with this adaptation of Tim Tharp’s 2008 novel.

The Spectacular Now stars off as a hip, flip teen saga, displaying the raunchy language and earthy behavior we’d expect from something shallow like the American Pie franchise ... but that similarity fades quickly. Sutter Keely is badly damaged goods, and Teller throws himself into the role with a reckless abandon that his character would recognize.

Before we know it, director James Ponsoldt has taken us into dangerous waters; we realize that things can’t end well. The only question is how much collateral damage will be involved.

With (500) Days of Summer, Neustadter and Weber demonstrated their skill with unconventional narrative hooks; no surprise, then, that this film opens with Sutter’s feeble attempt to compose an essay for what we assume is a college entrance application. He stalls when asked to discuss a personal hardship or life-changing event: uncharted territory he’d prefer to blow off. And so the subsequent film becomes the answer, as we eventually meet the catalyst who serves as Sutter’s possible life-preserver.

Assuming he’s willing to hold on.

Astute high school seniors recognize the need to plan for the future: to take that next step. Much as Cassidy loves Sutter and tingles in his presence, she recognizes that he’s holding her back. She desperately wants to flee their small Georgia town; Sutter sees no reason to change what he perceives is a winning formula.

And so she dumps him. Sort of. More or less. Can’t quite let go of him completely, despite sliding gracefully into a fresh relationship with the far more serious and stable Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi).

Sutter, nonetheless feeling abandoned, responds with a reckless night on the town. He wakes early the next morning, having passed out on somebody’s lawn, with no idea where he left his car. His timid rescuer is Aimee (Shailene Woodley), the sort of mousy, high school outcast who never gets dates, never attends school dances.

She knows who Sutter is, though; everybody at school knows Sutter. She’s therefore flattered when he expresses a desire to hang out with her, even more pleased when he asks if she’ll help tutor him in geometry. After all, “tutoring” invariably turns into an excuse for something much more, ah, recreational.

Sutter’s one genuine friend, Ricky (Masam Holden), is appalled. Aimee is a nice girl, Ricky protests, knowing full well that his buddy is a self-centered jerk. She’s the kind of girl who falls unconditionally in love. The kind of girl who can be hurt.

Similarly, Aimee’s best friend — played by Kaitlyn Dever, well remembered from her striking work in TV’s Justified — views Sutter as totally bad news.

And, at first, Sutter is a jerk, arrogantly assuming that Aimee is a “project”: an immature flower he can encourage to bloom. Aimee, no slouch when it comes to perception, recognizes this ... but tolerates it. She expects, with time, that the relationship can progress, become more of a sharing thing.

How many women have gone down in flames, hoping to change their men?

The resulting story is driven by these two young actors: most particularly Woodley, whose performance is breathtaking. Her Aimee is fragile yet foolishly impulsive: willing to embrace unwise behavior, even when she knows better. Woodley’s first scene sets the high bar for what is to follow, when Aimee finds Sutter passed out on that lawn. She giggles nervously, stumbles through inane chatter, too flustered to think straight: absolutely awed by the fact that Sutter Keely is willing to talk to her.

And if the warning bells go off, well, Aimee ignores them.

It must be mentioned that Woodley is far from mousy, withdrawn or unattractive, even though the filmmakers do their best to emphasize a “plain Jane” demeanor. It’s impossible to believe that any girl this adorable would be dateless. But the brilliance of Woodley’s performance includes the ability to carry herself in a manner that conceals her own beauty and charisma; she’s every inch a girl whose many attributes fade into the background, because she herself doesn’t believe they exist.

It’s an impeccably shaded performance: no surprise, coming from the young actress who held her own with George Clooney, and earned a Golden Globe nomination — not to mention a slew of other acting awards — for her work in 2011’s The Descendants.

Teller’s acting résumé isn’t as flashy, but his work here is equally subtle and sensitive, even though Sutter often behaves like a blunt instrument. His nakedly vulnerable scenes arrive unexpectedly: a brief chat with his older sister; a long-awaited heart-to-heart with his mother; an unexpected moment of candor with the patient proprietor who owns the men’s clothing store where Sutter has an after-school job. The latter scene is particularly heartbreaking.

In his own way — often with a stiffened reaction, as Sutter looks inside himself and winces at what he finds — Teller elicits our concern about this contemptible character. That’s an impressive feat, because Sutter constantly proves himself unworthy of anybody’s sympathy ... and yet we care, despite ourselves. If not because he deserves salvation, then at least because such self-destructive tendencies are so tragic, in one so young.

Aimee, on the other hand, clearly deserves the apprehension that Woodley’s performance elicits: Our anxiety mounts by the minute, the tension building almost unbearably.

Such well-deserved praise notwithstanding, though, Neustadter and Weber’s script has some rather glaring problems. We never meet Aimee’s mother, also a single parent who remains an off-camera figure: apparently damaged in some way (mentally unstable?) that never is specified. This character’s absence becomes increasingly irritating, as the story progresses.

The narrative also glosses quite superficially over Aimee’s willing embrace of Sutter’s alcoholic tendencies, leading me to believe, early on, that we were in for a teen echo of 1962’s Days of Wine and Roses. But Neustadter and Weber never confront the implications of this plot point, except for a quick references to Aimee’s father having died from drug abuse, thereby suggesting a dangerous genetic predisposition, on her part.

Somehow, Aimee just doesn’t get as drunk as Sutter; somehow, she seems able to control her consumption, and it never becomes a problem for her ... despite the fact that we watch her getting loaded just as often as he does. That’s rubbish.

Worse still, however, is this film’s failure to honor the conclusion Tharp gives his novel. Longtime film fans who remember George Segal’s crisis of conscience in 1973’s A Touch of Class will recognize where this story is heading (and I’ll not share the pivotal quote here, because it’d be a major spoiler). Tharp’s book demands that conclusion, and so does this film ... but although Ponsoldt, Neustadter and Weber replicate the novel’s key final scene, that’s not quite the end of this movie. Which is a shame.

Because it’s dishonest and false, and that comes as a jolt after so much of this story — thanks to its gifted performers — feels so authentic.

Despite these shortcomings, there’s much to admire in this big-screen handling of The Spectacular Now. Ponsoldt draws excellent performances from his young stars, and the supporting players are equally memorable. You’ll not soon forget Kyle Chandler’s brief turn as the estranged father Sutter eventually meets.

This summer has been marked by the failure of gazillion-dollar action franchises, and the much more satisfying success of “little films” with a fixation on coming-of-age storylines. We’ve seen three now — following The Kings of Summer and The Way, Way Back — and they’re all a treat. And if this one doesn’t quite live up to the adjective in its title, it’s nonetheless quite memorable and well worth viewing.

After all, most of us recall the agonies of star-crossed young love ... and Neustadter and Weber definitely nail that vibe.

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