Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Spectacular Now

(James Ponsoldt, USA, 2013)

Although it doesn't transcend the strictures of the coming-of-age romance, there's a lot to admire in this one.  Principally, the acting is excellent.  Kudos all around, including Ponsoldt, who elicits performances of subtlety and naturalistic flair.  Miles Teller establishes himself as fine actor - a natural, but one of capable of great focus and precision - he's got that Brandoish emotional access, but without the cerebral quality that made Brando at once immediate and remote.   Shailene Woodley elevates her role as the "nice girl," hinting at a complexity that the story doesn't quite allow her to pursue.  Ponsoldt ably orchestrates the mood of the film, with long takes that emphasize the pent-up energies of adolescence and the soft, rich greens of rural springtime.  Ponsoldt's perspective is humane and adult; he views the teenagers and their troubles with earnest sympathy, but remains essentially detached from the action.  This is fine, but it winds up underlining the inner conflict of the project, which is essentially a high school romance with sprinkling of real-world danger and adult tragedy.  That sounds harsh, but the fact remains that the movie, which begins with what appears to be an ironic nose-thumbing at the college entrance essay ("Describe a challenge from your life, and what you learned from it"), winds up buying that idea of overcome adversity whole-hog.  Yes, Teller's Sutter takes some hard knocks - his dad is a selfish drunk, he's well on his way to a similar fate - but these harsh realities are dimmed in favor of an optimistic glow that is never fully earned.

The most remarkable narrative choice is the treatment of Sutter's alcoholism.  He's a full-time drinker, we learn pretty quickly, who takes frequent nips from a flask and fortifies his Big Gulp with hard liquor, thus keeping a constant buzz.  Other characters have varying levels of awareness; his ex-girlfriend, whose dumping him is in part a response to his drinking, makes passing mention of it, his mother seems to be in the dark, and Woodley's Aimee - who is, like Sutter, the child of an addict parent (in her case, the dad has been killed by his disease) - falls easily into his habit, joining in his immoderate imbibing.  It's only directly addressed once, at the end, when his boss (the stalwart boob Bob Odenkirk) confronts him over it.  The boss, paraphrased: "If I was your father, I'd say something about what you're doing to yourself."  Sutter:  "If you were my father, you wouldn't have to."  It's a nice dramatic couplet, but it has the unfortunate effect of being pat, of papering over Sutter's destructiveness with a sudden burst of self-reflective clarity and eloquence, as if all at once, the key to Sutter's drinking has been revealed and exorcised.  Next thing we know, he's decided to get his life in order. The kind of ledgerdemain that a well-liked addict can create to protect their addiction is a fascinating phenomenon, a worthy subject for a film.  But in the end, this isn't what The Spectacular Now is about, and the risk is that Sutter's compulsion is just one of many problems to be overcome by a combination of gumption and forgiveness, something to be outgrown, almost, by the end of summer.

...On the other hand, I'm not sure my charge sticks.  To clarify: I'm not sure that Ponsoldt is intending the film to be anything other than an unusually polished Young Adult entertainment.  Drinking and divorce are real and ugly enough, but they aren't exactly unknown in the genre.  The overall sheen of the film, with its filmic softness and subtle performances, suggests currents of discord and energy that aren't pursued, and belies the low aim of the story that serves as its basis.  One feels tempted to take the tack of a guidance counselor:  there's untapped potential here.

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