erik lundegaard

The Spectacular Now
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The Spectacular Now (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s been 32 years since I’ve been the age of the principle characters in “The Spectacular Now” (18), so I don’t know how true their story is today. But this is how true it feels: I was bored during great parts of it. I was bored and extremely uncomfortable during the sex scenes. I felt I should avert my eyes. Kids having sex? Quit watching, Erik. Go to the concession stand already. Pervert.

“The Spectacular Now” is a good movie, and I hope it resonates with kids that age. But 10 minutes in I was thinking, “This is a mistake. This is not a movie for me anymore.”

Written byScott Neustadter
Michael H. Weber
Directed byJames Ponsoldt
StarringMiles Teller
Shailene Woodley
Brie Larson
Kyle Chandler

A loveish story

Sutter (Miles Teller of “Rabbit Hole”) lives in the now, spectacular or not. He lives in the moment. He’s a popular senior in high school who isn’t interested in college—that’s the future—and gets by on easy charm, mild humor and frequent libation. This last sneaks up on us. We first see him getting drunk the night after his girlfriend, the equally popular Cassidy (Brie Larson of “21 Jump Street”), leaves him, so we don’t think twice about it. We’d do the same. But then he’s at work at a men’s store and he sneaks the contents of an old-fashioned flask into his plastic soda cup. After a while, we begin to realize we rarely see him not drinking. How old is he? Won’t this be a problem? For the movie as well? Won’t it become an afterschool special?

To the filmmakers’ credit, it doesn’t. It becomes a love story. Maybe a love-ish story.

The morning after his first binge he wakes up on the front lawn of Aimee (Shailene Woodley, spectacular), who knows who he is though he struggles to remember her. It took a moment for me to register this. “Oh,” I thought. “So he’s in with the popular crowd and she isn’t. She’s the odd, plain girl in school. Shailene Woodley. OK.” The filmmakers do what they can to make this believable—Woodley hardly wears a speck of make-up throughout—but she’s still got those beautiful eyes and that vulnerable, heartbreaking face. But you give it a pass. In the movies, a man can fly and Shailene Woodley can be the unpopular girl.

This, along with his drinking, is the tension that drives the movie: How will Sutter break Aimee’s heart? Sutter’s friend, Rick (Masam Holden), who never had a girlfriend until Sutter set him up, is against the relationship. “She’s a strange choice for a rebound,” he says. At first Sutter denies he’s even interested in Aimee. But he keeps drifting that way. He enjoys being with her, talking with her. Maybe he sees her as a rehab project—as with Rick earlier in the movie? Rick is alone so here’s a girl. Aimee is alone so here I am.

He also keeps drifting back toward Cassidy. They’re like magnets that attract from a distance and repel close up. Sutter has a lot of drift in the movie. At one point, he and his boss, Dan (Bob Odenkirk), have this conversation about Aimee:

Dan: I kinda thought she would be the one to yank you out of neutral.
Sutter: Neutral? What are you talking about? I’m in overdrive!

They’re both right. Sutter’s in overdrive to live in the spectacular now, which is almost a Zen thing, but the spectacular now can also be a road to nowhere. Sutter realizes that in the second half of the movie.

The parent trap

For the first half of the movie, the parents are almost like Charlie Brown parents: unseen. Wu-wurh, wurh wu wu wurh. We get a few scenes with his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s a nurse, and grumpy. Her mom, glimpsed from a distance late in the movie, has a paper route but it’s Aimee who delivers them. She’s against Aimee going away to college for this reason. Because who will do her paper route? I suppose there are such short-sighted parents, but the smallness is spectacular.

The dads? Hers is dead, his is deadbeat. Early on, he lies to Aimee about him—says he’s a pilot—but in reality he doesn’t even know how to contact him. And he’s 18? Eventually, he gets the dad’s contact info from his older sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), forever wearing pearls, and phones him. A meeting is set up but when he arrives, with Aimee in tow, the dad, Tommy (Kyle Chandler, forever playing dads), living in a motel-like apartment, is scattered, distracted, not there. Is he on drugs? Is he an alcoholic? Is he just an asshole? Mostly 2 and 3. He takes the kids to a local dive bar, orders a pitcher, but isn’t exactly forthcoming. Sutter asks about the marriage: What happened between you and mom? “What happened? Things didn’t work out, that’s what happened.” By revealing nothing, he reveals everything. Then the wallop.

Tommy: I don’t live in the past, I live in the now. Do you understand that?
Sutter (scales falling): Yeah.

For some reason, this encounter devastates rather than wakes up Sutter. Obviously he sees himself in his father and doesn’t like what he sees but he doubles down on their very similarities. He drinks more. He drifts over the yellow line. He crashes into the mailbox. He’s responsible for Aimee winding up in the hospital but this doesn’t wake him up. His math teacher (Andre Royo, wasted) will flunk him unless he applies himself so he doesn’t. Everyone is graduating, everyone is moving on, and he’s stuck with a non-diploma.

He’s still got the men’s store, right? Except Dan tells him business is bad and he can only keep one of his two employees; and while he wants to keep Sutter, who is great with the customers, he adds a stipulation. Sutter can’t show up drunk; he can’t drink on the job. A revelation. Dan isn’t as dumb as we thought and Sutter isn’t as sly as he thought. But Sutter can’t accept those terms. In admitting that, he admits, perhaps for the first time, that he has a problem. Then we get this very nice, very deft bit of writing:

Dan: If I were your father, I guess this would be the part where I give you a lecture.
Sutter: If you were my father, you wouldn’t have to give me a lecture.

No bullshit Autumn

“The Spectacular Now,” from the novel by Tim Tharp, was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote “(500) Days of Summer.” That movie was indie but this is even more so. There is no bullshit greeting-card job here. There is no bullshit Autumn after Summer. There is just autumn after summer. There is just college after high school. There is just the road vs. the road to nowhere.

Stories about addicts tend to be boring because addicts tend to be boring. They fumble, disappoint, betray. Their trajectory is downward and they either hit bottom and bounce or don’t and die. Neustadter and Weber, with director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”), avoid a lot of these pitfalls. Their story is subtler. Does Sutter rebound? A bit. How? We’re not sure. Dan, with his either/or proposition, helps. So does Aimee. So does Sutter’s mom, who tells Sutter why he’s not like his father: “You have the biggest heart of anyone I know,” she says. But nothing is clear-cut. The story frays a bit but in a good way. The ending is ambiguous. Sutter, disappointed, disgruntled, but taking steps on the road back, shows up at Aimee’s college. She sees him. For a moment she’s happy. Then she’s not. Then ... ?

I hope kids go see “The Spectacular Now.” I hope they learn something. I did. I learned that Shailene Woodley is the real thing. I learned that Miles Teller can play both charming (here) and sad and creepy (“Rabbit Hole”). I also learned that 17 was a long time ago.

—September 2, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard

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