The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt, 2013)
It can be easy to write off the teen movie genre, especially when thought of in terms of the horribly-written Twilight series, as well as the plethora of Lindsay Lohan/ Hilary Duff/ Amanda Bynes movies that I was brought up on. I’m referring to the ones where a stunningly attractive girl is somehow meant to pass as the uncool protagonist who has to vie against straight-out bitches for the affections of the high school jock who usually has a name like Jake or Brett. I can’t deny I did enjoy some of these (there’s just something about Lindsay pre-breakdown), but along with the repetitive clichéd crap (did you know they made three sequels to The Prince and Me?), there is the occasional gem in the midst. These include films with quick-witted scripts like the Tina Fey-penned Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004), and the Oscar-winning Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) written by Diablo Cody. Or something that offers something completely different, like The Hunger Games series, which not only stars the coolest person of all time, Jennifer Lawrence, but also is about a zillion times better than the Twilight series. Instead of watching a sparkly vampire and a hot werewolf fighting over an expressionless Kristen Stewart, we get a female protagonist actually doing stuff for herself! Amazing! That’s not to mention all the commentary the books and movies provide on politics, war, our fascination with reality television, and most interestingly, what a teenager will do to survive in the cruellest of circumstances. While The Spectacular Now does not quite provide the same level of action as The Hunger Games franchise, it too is one of those rare teen films which not only will appeal to young people, and teach them something more than slutting up gets the guy (Hello, Grease), but one that adults who still remember high school can appreciate too.
In The Spectacular Now, based on Tim Tharp’s novel of the same name, Miles Teller stars as Sutter (yes, apparently that’s a first name) whose life philosophy is to live in the moment. What makes this film stand out from its predecessors is that it involves a protagonist who we would usually only see on the periphery as a one-dimensional character. That is, the slightly arrogant, popular guy who enjoys drinking and partying, and has complete disregard for future consequences. While this type of character is usually painted as the villain who gets his come-uppance in the end, usually by being humiliated at the prom or some such event, here Sutter is painted as a vulnerable youth from a broken family who hasn’t quite found his purpose. Considerable attention is also paid to his excessive drinking, which rather than being portrayed as something that cool young people do, is actually shown to be quite sad.
After Sutter is dumped by his high school girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson) who aspires for something more in life, he befriends the shy and almost invisible, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). For all of this film’s advances in the genre, one grievance I have is that again, this supposed ‘nobody’ is played by a gorgeous young woman who is not nearly as awkward as I would have liked, however there are satisfactory awkward moments. I did appreciate that neither Woodley nor Teller wore make-up in the film. There was no attempt to hide Teller’s acne and thank god for that, because it is unnatural to portray teenagers who all have perfect skin! Skin sucks when you’re that age! Appearances aside, the film tracks the pair’s growing relationship and I genuinely identified with Aimee’s naïve love for Sutter, and her expectations for their future.
Teller plays the role of Sutter to perfection with a mix of faux arrogance and vulnerability. He plays a flawed individual and evokes sympathy from an audience who could easily write-off such a character. Woodley similarly convinces as sweet Aimee, beautifully portraying her mixed emotions, especially in the closing scene. Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh offer stellar supporting performances as Sutter’s separated parents in roles which are largely ignored in other teen fodder. What these other teen films tend to omit is a deeper insight into the attitudes, motivations, and behaviours of young people as an effect of their parenting. Here we can clearly understand why Sutter has become the young man that he is, without it being forcibly slammed in our faces.
Before you write-off all teenagers as little shits that talk too loudly on the train, do yourself a favour and remind yourself what it was like to experience that stage of life. Back before your pre-frontal cortex was fully developed, when you made dumb decisions, when you didn’t fully comprehend ‘the future’, and when high school love seemed like the most important thing in the world. The Spectacular Now can help serve as that reminder.