(Photo : A24)
Everyone remembers that guy in high school who loved to shine the spotlight on himself at parties. Some might remember him as the popular guy who usually flunked classes while often pulling class pranks. Many might have liked him, but others probably wrote him off as a bottom feeder once he entered his adult years. That kind of character has often evolved into the archetypal (or unfortunately stereotypical) man-child that has become a building block for many of Hollywood's modern comedies. Just look at your typical Adam Sandler films about the adult loser who can't stop acting like a child. Or Will Ferrell's stock characters that show no semblance of adult behavior at any point. Or how about "The Hangover" trilogy, which celebrates immaturity? This character is venerated because he never stops having fun. He never seems to see the world in a dark light. And at the end of the day he maintains an optimism many people can't find in real life.
The reality is the idealist perspective of the man-child does not really hold up. He is not problem-free and he cannot ignore the troubles of the real world forever like he does in any one of the numerous aforementioned films. James Ponsoldt's riveting "The Spectacular Now" humanizes the "man-child" and examines the origins and evolutions of this archetype.
The film tells the story of Sutter (Miles Teller), the self-proclaimed "life of every party" who is going through a tough break-up with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). When the viewer first meets Sutter he is attempting to write a college essay about a difficulty in his life and he chooses to talk about his break-up. Within moments, the character has fallen on his face figuratively and literally. He winds up on the lawn of some stranger's house after a wild night of drinking and deception and is woken up by Aimee (Shailene Woodley). The two become fast friends and start to develop strong emotions for each other. However, not everything is right in Sutter's world. He still has an eye on his ex and he longs to resolve the longstanding conflict between his father and mother.
The film is refreshing on a number of fronts. Like Sutter, the plot embraces the now and weaves around its characters' spontaneous decisions. This is not your typical goal-driven narrative with its character yearning for a tangible super-objective. Sutter reacts to his environment without really giving it much thought. His decisions slowly reveal more about his desire to use his nonchalant nature as a defense for a fear of the world he desperately wants to avoid, but knows he can't.
The film starts off with a rather light vibe that showcases Sutter setting up his best friend with another girl one moment and teaching Aimee how to stand up to her mother with derogatory terms in another. It all seems like fun and games, however, the film slowly descends into an abyss with tragedy seemingly in sight for Sutter. More scenes take place at night. The laughing and jokes cease and are replaced with silence and bickering. The idyllic, carefree world of prom and high school is dominated by the complex and disappointing one inhabited by adults. The beautiful love building between the two leads feels empty and distant in their final scene together. Sutter, who is surrounded by friends at a house party and bar in the opening scenes, finds himself alone in the bleachers during his graduation.
Like in Ponsoldt's previous films, "On the Black" and "Smashed," alcohol plays a major role in the film. However, unlike the other works, where it was front and center, alcohol figures as a leitmotif that slowly asserts itself more and more as the film heads into darker territory. Early on, while he describes his breakup situation, Sutter is seen drinking at parties and bars, but it is impossible to really make anything of it. Afterall, how many teenagers do exactly that during their high school years? Even when he pulls out the flask at work and pours it into his soda cup, the treatment seems humorous and comic. When he gives Aimee a sip from his flask at a party and prior to prom, the gesture seems like a genuine bonding moment. However, its persistent reappearance in later stages of the film becomes more and more ominous. Every time Aimee takes out her flask to pour the couple a drink, the viewer cannot help but cringe. His bad influence is starting to impact her, and the viewer desperately wants her far away from him.
Teller makes a star turn as Sutter. He's full of energy and his smile makes him a loveable character. His characterization tries to put up the front of the strong character and yet comes off as a awkward and out-of-place in numerous moments. As his character descends, the smile dissipates behind an increasingly stern face that is wrestling to keep its emotions in check. The cathartic scene between mother and son is one of the most beautifully intense moments in the film.
Woodley is breathtaking in her turn as Aimee. Like Sutter her character is full of life and optimism. Her timid and insecure nature is genuine and palpable, and her transformation, like Sutter's, is one of trial by fire. Back in 2011, Woodley was denied an Oscar nomination for her solid turn in "The Descendants." While by no means the measure of great work or success, it is impossible to see the Academy ignore this poignant and beautiful performance by an ever-maturing actress.
The supporting characters, led by Larson, Kyle Chandler, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, fill the world of the story with realism and depth. Larson's Cassidy is in love with Sutter but she is also a realist. She knows that Sutter is bad for her and that she needs a better man if she is to reach her personal goals. She is not the stereotypical girlfriend that separates the protagonists because of jealousy. She embraces his new relationship and hopes that it will improve him.
Pinsoldt and cinematographer Jess Hall utilize the long take to terrific effect in pivotal scenes; a powerful portrayal of the title's "Spectacular Now" if you will. A sex scene is filmed in a tight long shot that creates a powerful sense of intimacy but also reflects naturalism. There is no romanticism here, but the effect is more powerful as Sutter and Aimee go through the steps of love-making one-by-one.
After prom, the two characters dance about in the dark. The camera tracks along at a distance as the two remain in a world of dreams and fantasy. But then Aimee brings up a serious topic and everything halts. The characters stop dancing and the camera stops tracking. Instead, it dollies into a more intense and claustrophobic framing that clearly portrays Sutter's psychological state; the darkness also portrays Sutter's lack of honesty with Aimee in that particular moment. The scene contrasts beautifully with an earlier moment between the characters in which they walk through a forest in broad daylight and get to know one another openly and honestly. Suddenly, they stop, as does the camera, and Sutter gives Aimee her first kiss.
In another scene between Sutter and Cassidy, the camera remains distant from the characters in a wide shot. Despite taking place in the afternoon, the room is filled with shadows and both characters are framed on either side of the window in the center of the frame; the framing and lighting not only shows the division of the two, but their emotional turmoil. Cassidy cries throughout this scene because she admits her love for Sutter but also confesses the need to be as far away from him as possible. Meanwhile, Sutter is stuck between his desire to get Cassidy back and knowing that it is time to move on.
Awards season is not supposed to start until late September, but "The Spectacular Now" has set the bar for any other films coming out this year. Living up to its name, the film is a refreshingly glorious character study buoyed by incredible performances and intelligent directing. "The Spectacular Now" is and will continue to be one of the best films of the year and one that will endure for years to come.