(Dir. James Ponsoldt, 2013)
Perhaps this post’s heading is a bit extreme, but since I missed the press screening for this film when I went on vacation in July, I kept hearing about film critic types in these here internets going absolutely gaga for it. So sure, my expectations may have been too high, but despite thinking that it was a well made melodrama with some fine acting, THE SPECTACULAR NOW felt like a big screen Afterschool Special to me.
However, I will say upfront that Miles Teller, as the slick talking protagonist Sutter Keely, redeems himself for being the obnoxious center of attention in the awful teensploitation flick 21 AND OVER earlier this year. Teller deftly portrays a hard drinking (he seems to always have a flask in hand) high school senior that has no plans for the future, because he lives in the “now.”
After being dumped by his girlfriend (Brie Larson), Teller gets wasted one wild night and on the way home passes out in the lawn of the nice girl from school that he never noticed before, played by Shailene Woodley, best known for playing George Clooney’s precocious daughter in the DESCENDANTS.
The two fall in love but face a rocky road together as she has dreams of leaving their sleepy small town life (the film was mostly shot in Athens, Georgia) and going to college in Philadelphia, but Teller just wants to stay put and keep partying.
Our boozy boy Teller, who works at a men’s clothing store under boss Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, Breaking Bad), got his philosophy of life from his deadbeat dad of a father (seen here portrayed by a great sweaty Kyle Chandler). Jennifer Jason Leigh, sadly in too small a part, as Teller’s mother, had the right idea in trying to shield her son from his extremely unfit father. This is something Teller learns, along with Woodley, when they take an ill fated road trip to meet up with Chandler.
An obvious staple of teen romance films is a prom scene, and to the credit of Pondsoldt and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who based the screenplay on the 2008 young adult novel by Tim Tharp, it’s a nicely understated scene. A glowing, and of course lit, Teller looks around at his schoolmates and says: “This is the youngest we're ever going to be.” We’ve all known somebody who prides themselves on always being the life of the party, and in that moment Teller nails being able to say something as stupid as that and making it almost seem profound.
With the naturistic rhythms of their acting nicely complimenting each other, Teller and Woodley are a very believable couple. The film framing them stays too much on the surface of all the events it depicts though.
I liked but didn't love Poldsoldt’s previous film, SMASHED (2012), his second as director, which was also concerned with the effect of alcoholism on a relationship. I haven't seen his first film, 2006's OFF THE BLACK, but the IMDb description says it has Nick Nolte as “an aging, disillusioned alcoholic” so it would be understatement to say I'm sensing a theme here.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW has a fair share of truthful heartfelt moments, but it's not hard enough on its lead character. It seems to just want us to shake our head disapprovingly at him, but know he'll ultimately shape up and fly right.
But then, so many movies don't have this kind of unpretentious thoughtful tone, and don't even try for the realism that's certainly on display here, so maybe I'm being too hard on it. I mean, come to think of it, there were some excellent Afterschool Specials.