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The Spectacular Now: High School was Awesome! Wait… No.

August 31, 2013

You can tell a lot about a person’s taste in movies based on how they feel about the approach of Labor Day weekend. For those that prefer explosions and guzzling corn products (isn’t corn so awesome?) Labor Day weekend is sad for many reasons; the last barbecue of the Summer, you can no longer wear white, and of course the declining quality of genre films until eventually we reach the month of January where films go to die. However, if you’re one of those foolish people who believe that film is art, despite the fact that there are too many people involved in its production for it to have any semblance of a single artistic vision, you celebrate Labor Day. After all, now we begin the long march to the Academy Awards and therefore movies will be about serious things like history, complicated and disturbing romances, and the opinions of old white men!

With this Labor Day weekend I decided to look back at some movies that have come out this month and will probably make rounds at the Oscars without the general public even realizing they came out. While Blue Jasmine seemed tempting, I was more drawn to The Spectacular Now. This might be because high school wasn’t that long ago for me (though it grows further and further away with each passing day). Though it could also be because it looked like a standard indie romance and I really wanted to see two awkward looking white people running through the rain and then jump cut to them laughing in an absurdly spacious and decorated apartment.

In fact the way the film draws you into what seems to be an offbeat quirky romance is part of what makes it so great. The romance between the two fantastic leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Wood, is positively brilliant. They have great chemistry, the dialogue is pitch perfect, and the actual story of how they meet and become entangled with each other is also very rewarding. However to suggest that this movie is merely about their romance would do it a great disservice.

This movie is much more about the viewpoint of being a teenager who’s staring out on the precipice of adulthood, and the eventual breakdown and rebuilding of Sutter Keely (Teller). Paced at a break neck speed, we watch as Sutter goes from trying to get over his ‘perfect girlfriend’ Cassidy to somehow falling for the plain but very sweet Aimee Finecky (Wood). The laidback non-committal slacker Sutter really makes you keep thinking that you have him pinned down and therefore you’ll try to get ahead of the movie, imagining the seemingly obvious plot points in your head. Instead though you’re rewarded with a very real, three dimensional character who’s layers are peeled back as the movie goes on.

Aimee Finecky has the much clearer arc to her character, as Sutter ultimately helps her grow out of her shell. It’s very rewarding to watch her go from the nice girl without a story to someone who’s willing to assert herself, get a little dirty, and have a bit of fun while still preserving who she is at her core. She’s also a fully developed character and while not present in as many scenes her influence on Sutter is ever-present and it makes for both an interesting love story and actual plot.

I wouldn’t want to give away this film, because it is good, moves at a very brisk one hundred minutes, and is worth your time. If you’re looking for a movie that lacks pretension but still has a point, you’re going to enjoy The Spectacular Now. All I can really say about it is that it is beautifully acted. Just stellar performances from everyone involved. They really take an already naturally sounding script and bring it to a level that will make you reflect on your own adolescence.

If you find yourself at the movies and you want to watching something that will feed your brain a bit, and make you feel something, watch The Spectacular Now.

 

As always spoilers and a bit more for super-fans, below.

 

 

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Welcome, Super-fans! Chariots! Chariots!

 

 

As I said above this film is not merely a quirky romance movie, it’s much more about the perceptions of adulthood and future that we have in our late teens. The hopes, the dreams, the lies we tell ourselves, and so on. We can all look back at ourselves at 17 and see some things that we can’t believe we thought or did and others that we wish we could recapture. What’s really great is that the film is able to present those ideas without passing judgment on them, which is impressive given that the thrust of the film (Sutter’s story of personal growth) revolves around his realization that he should be working toward his future.

Sutter’s personal growth comes in a really interesting way because the majority of the film is spent exposing him entirely as a person to the audience, as well as himself. The film opens with him writing an essay to apply for college, in which he tries to explain an instance where he overcomes an obstacle and learns from the experience. A fairly standard self-reflexive college application essay. The essay he chooses to write perfectly frames his character as someone who views himself as on top of the world. He is a confident charming young man who is the life of every party that he goes to.

While his charms are evident, we’re very quickly introduced to the fact that he is clearly a high-functioning alcoholic. He’s always spiking his drinks, his ex-girlfriend says he drives better drunk, and he meets Aimee Finecky after passing out on an unknown lawn. Yet, largely through his relationships with other people, Aimee especially, we also learn to see him as a positive influence on people. He’s kind and encouraging, and he’s the type of friend everyone wants to have when you’re feeling down.

There’s this really great scene when he’s in Aimee’s room for the first time and he comments on how she has a lot of books. Aimee is clearly shy and embarrassed about this, quietly saying it’s, “mostly science fiction… some mysteries…” Sutter picks up a book at random, perplexed because it’s some sort of manga and is thus read from right to left. Aimee tries to get off the topic of the book, suggesting its silly that she reads it and says it’s kind of dumb. Yet, Sutter doesn’t stand for that, as he says, “You like it. It can’t be dumb.” That’s the type of phrase that all of us need to hear and think more regularly, and Sutter is already at that point of high self-esteem.

Which is exactly what clouds him from his own failings. Realization keeps trying to push its way into his life from his geometry teacher (Andre Royo) and his boss at an upscale men’s clothing store (Bob Odenkirk) but Sutter always finds a way to escape it. Things start to crumble for him when his ex-girlfriend states that she can’t be with him because she wants a future. Then her new boyfriend tells Sutter that he’s, “Not the joke everyone thinks [he is].” Eventually, the film fully shifts into being Sutter’s story when he goes to confront his father who left the family years ago.

Kyle Chandler takes the role of Sutter’s deadbeat dad and crushes it. It’s hard to believe that this is the same actor who was bastion of stability Coach Taylor for five seasons on Friday Night Lights. He really sells the character, and Sutter’s father so brilliantly demonstrates the same bad qualities Sutter is starting to see in himself. The true bomb though comes from a surprising twist, where as opposed to coming up with one more excuse (the character is full of them) he completely admits that he simply left his family. He suggests there are reasons for why he left though they seem vague at best and are most likely non-existent. It seems that he left because he just didn’t care.

Sutter and Aimee are left footing their bar tab while he goes to obviously screw around with a woman. This leads to Sutter claiming that he himself is poison for everyone just like his father, and while Aimee tries to show him how much she loves him, he can’t accept it and they grow slightly distant. From here we see his quick downfall where he begins to question why anything he does matters. This results in some of the saddest but most powerful scenes in the film. Scenes that will definitely stick with you when you leave the theater.

Sutter’s journey comes to a close once more at his computer. He’s still clearly him as he writes a new essay, explaining that he’s his own largest obstacle while joking that this application was ‘probably due a long time ago.’ He puts himself back together and goes off to the one thing that was ever good for him: Aimee.

The last scene is beautiful, not because it’s an amazing reunion, but because it’s a reunion that opens up a whole other chapter of his life. We don’t know what Aimee says when she sees him, and the emotions that play across Wood’s face are complex and intriguing.

I want to take a moment and just say how great of a character Aimee Finecky is. There’s something about her honesty, intelligence, and kindness that makes her so wonderful but what makes her great is the simple fact that she’s very real. You know girls like Aimee Finecky and they have names just like Aimee Finecky. The kinds of names where you want to use both their first and last names every time you mention them. The kinds of names that just sound like they fit a sweet girl from next door. She’s not the girl that went to parties but she’s the girl that you remember for some reason or another. A little awkward and very sweet.

The authentic nature of the characters is probably what helps their chemistry so much, and it’s that authenticity and chemistry that makes the sex scene so wonderfully awkward. I don’t mean awkward in a painful way or a comedic way. The scene is awkward because as you watch it you’ll be instantly reminded of your own first time. It so perfectly preserves that moment without going into sentimentality or comedy. It’s a scene that just is, much like the actuality of losing your virginity.

Ultimately this is a really great movie with fantastic performances, a great score that melds very well with the film, and a very strong complex main character. It really does capture being seventeen in a way that few other films do, and it paints Sutter with all of his flaws in tact while still making him sympathetic.

Really the best way to look at him and the film, is in the words of his ex-girlfriend Cassidy in one scene, “You’ll always be my favorite ex-boyfriend.”

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