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The Spectacular Now

August 9, 2013
The Spectacular Now

I can say that Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller both give moving, nuanced performances in The Spectacular Now. I can say that James Ponsoldt does a great job directing it. I just wish I could say that I enjoyed yet another story about a self-involved, self-pitying middle class white boy falling in love with an offbeat girl and learning a valuable lesson about the world and about himself. I spent a lot of years — probably too many — as that sort of kid and I can tell you they’re not nearly as fascinating as they think they are. And when this has become the go-to template for so many indie movies, including screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s earlier (500) Days of Summer, it wears thin.

Sutter Keely (Teller) is in his senior year of high school, writing college application essays, even though he’s pretty satisfied with his life right now and doesn’t see why anything has to change. He’s got a good job at a men’s clothing store in town; he’s got a car; he’s reasonably popular. He’s also an alcoholic, though this seems to matter far less than it seems it should.

It does matter in that Sutter’s first response when his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), dumps him is to get drunk. Then he makes a scene at a party, and then gets more drunk. He wakes up early the next morning, sprawled on a lawn, with Aimee Finicky (Woodley) standing over him as she goes about her mother’s paper route.

Aimee isn’t all that popular. She’s smart and studious, into sci-fi and fantasy and manga and other geeky pursuits. Sutter takes an interest in her, partly to rub it in Cassidy’s face, but partly to give her a leg up into the popular life he can’t conceive of not wanting to be a part of. Soon enough, though, he finds he’s developing real feelings for this wallflower who’s now boozing right along with him.

And this sort of rings false. Not that the popular guy would fall for the quirky girl, but that she would so enthusiastically leap on any chance at joining his life. I get that there’s pressure to conform, but Aimee shows all signs of having rejected that until this point — she’s smart enough to know what to do to at least be on the edge of the in crowd and has chosen not to do so — and it’s not clear what switch flips that she’s suddenly going to drink and party like Sutter.

Except that she is instantly in love with the first boy to show any interest in her, to the extent that it drowns out the rest of her personality. And sure, this sort of thing happens and leads to heartbreak and growth. But the movie doesn’t actually care about Aimee’s character arc; when things go bad — and in any relationship among teenagers things will eventually go bad — we don’t really see any growth or introspection on her part at all.

No, Aimee’s here to bounce off of Sutter and effect a change in his course, just like in manic pixie dream girl movies like, well, (500) Days of Summer. This story is about Sutter learning why “living in the now” is a stupid, childish notion, despite the way that so much of our culture romanticizes it. And I agree that this is a valuable lesson — better and more widely applicable than most that get trotted out in these sorts of indie coming-of-age movies — but I’m still stuck on how Aimee has to get thrown under the bus for him to learn it.

Ponsoldt is a skilled director, though I know from Smashed he can do a better job with the consequences of alcoholic inertia than this. Woodley and Teller are both talented young actors, and I’m excited to see more from both of them. But The Spectacular Now is just another overwrought entry — sometimes cheaply so — in a long line of these stories that flatter themselves as deeply meaningful, and it’s not a particularly notable one at that.

Worth It: not particularly, though you could do worse in terms of acting and direction.
Bechdel Test: There’s a small exchange between Aimee and Sutter’s sister; does this count? I’m not sure.

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