' Cinema Romantico: The Spectacular Now

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Spectacular Now

By the time Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), our latter day Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court, share their requisite first kiss it does not necessarily feel requisite. And this irregular, welcoming sensation can be traced to a moment that takes place directly before the first kiss. At a party they go for a walk in the woods where a tree branch intrudes into the frame and finds its way right into the back of Sutter's head. Laughing, Aimee pushes away the tree branch. Maybe, though, that wasn’t Sutter and Aimee so much as Miles and Shailene, which is to suggest the bit was incidental, an act of kismet. It doesn’t so much show you the making of the movie as underline its spontaneity, the way it mostly seems to unfold all on its own as opposed to a course charted by screenwriters. The characters are so alive, in fact, by the end they are ready to go in different directions than the movie takes them.


"The Spectacular Now" is chiefly about Teller and Woodley and their astonishing natural performances and chemistry so utterly true and captivating that it really goes beyond movie review adjectives. (If Teller and Woodley don’t win Best Onscreen Duo at the MTV Movie Awards then I don’t understand the world in which we live.)

He is outgoing and popular, a good-hearted screw-up, and curator of an omnipresent pocket flask (more on that in a minute). She is reserved, less popular, a sci-fi geek, and smart. And while she might be too much of a fair maiden to be believable as a Pygmalion, what Woodley brilliantly does is not play the part as someone unworthy of the cool kids but unwanting of them. Which makes her that much cooler. Which is what Sutter responds to.

See, the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webert does not reduce these two to high school appropriate tropes, the downfall of many a new age teenybopper rom com. For instance, the story spins off of Sutter’s break-up with comely Cassidy (Brie Larson), and he still seems to have eyes for her even as his relationship with Aimee blooms. A lesser film would have made that the focal point and instead here it just becomes an organic hiccup.

Ah, but don’t presume they are not star cross’d. They are young lovers, after all. He has the dad he has never seen and she has the mom we never see who seeks to curb her daughter’s dreams. The film’s second act revolves primarily around Sutter finally meeting his long absentee father (a marvelously twitchy Kyle Chandler) and coming face to face with his feckless roots. Before long he and Aimee are on the side of the highway, nearly having swerved into an oncoming car, and he is shouting about he’s no good for her and she needs to get away from him and then the film sorta jumps the shark.


It’s not even that the trucked-in melodrama is unnecessary, though it is, but that once it happens it’s essentially brushed aside in a flash, as if it didn’t even matter. It supremely underscores the way in which director James Ponsoldt is trying to pull his characters one way as the film surges toward its close, but the characters fight back and pull it another way.

Let’s be clear, Sutter has a drinking problem and this, oddly, is never quite addressed in a satisfactory manner. Let’s also be clear that he eventually colonizes his lady friend. At graduation Cassidy actually says to Sutter in regards to Aimee: “Have you turned her into a lush yet?” It’s intended as a joke but Sutter really has turned Aimee into a lush. She clings to him at the ceremony and when her friend from earlier in the film waves at her from down below the bleachers, Aimee actually seems aggravated by having been forced into going and saying hello. And she cannot even go say hello until she kisses Sutter first. Girlfriend, where’s your self-confidence?

So many teenage relationships merely function as beautiful buffers for the horror of those years before you move on. “The Spectacular Now”, however, remains adamant, right to the end, that it is still a storybook romance, unaware of its transformation into something darker.

In the wake of the closing shot I wanted to scream at Aimee: “No! Can’t you see he’s no good for you?! You need to get away from him!”

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