THE SPECTACULAR NOW
2013, 99 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
It is rare for a movie to have the power to deliver as much of a gut punch as The Spectacular Now, the new film by acclaimed director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) and writers Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter ((500) Days of Summer), does. Teen movies frequently involve some form of glorification of drinking, drug use, and sex, and/or a heavy-handed message. The Spectacular Now contains all of the elements of a clichéd teen film, but just manages to stay to the side of cliché, forming a movie that left me with an immense sense of admiration and love for it.
The film won a Special Jury Prize for Acting from this year’s Sundance Film Festival for the performances by leads Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) whose portrayals of high school seniors are among the most accurate I’ve ever seen. The two never seem to be acting. They seem to be living in their characters. Their natural chemistry is beautiful. Each action and each word is said with such care and such love that is hard to believe that this is a movie at some points. I cannot praise Teller and Woodley enough. Their performances don’t have the artifice that those of other young actors have and they just let their own personalities bleed out to create some of the most distinct and multi-dimensional teen characters in ages.
Neustadter and Weber’s screenplay is gutsy. The first half is very charming and made me feel great, but once reality starts setting in and senior year begins to wind down, the harshness of the real world starts to crash down on the characters, giving the movie serious dramatic heft. The movie focuses very heavily on the theme of teen alcoholism, but the way it is handled is original and refreshing. I didn’t realize this as a theme of the movie until a serious reality check comes later in the film. Drinking is present in so many scenes in the film that I didn’t recognize that the lead character is an alcoholic until the aforementioned reality check. This is a brilliant move by Neustadter and Weber. They handle this issue so subtly and honestly that they never need to explicitly tell the audience that alcoholism is a theme and that it is bad, as many other, lesser films would do. The best way to describe this movie is a John Hughes movie without any of the sentimentality. That is not to say that Hughes’ movies are bad. They are among the most accurate films about high school life ever made. They just have a sentimental streak, which does works well for them. The Spectacular Now does have one scene that could conceivably be called sentimental, but is completely earned and works beautifully. The final scenes of the movie could have been cheesy had they gone the route that other movies would have. But, Neustadter and Weber take the route, making these scenes that much more painful and smart. Had The Spectacular Now’s final scene run for a single minute more, it would not have had the punch that it had. But, Neustadter and Weber knew where to cut that final scene, giving it real impact. The dialogue given to Teller and Woodley is realistic and, at times, very funny and Teller and Woodley’s performances really make it come to life.
The Spectacular Now frequently goes scarily close to being contrived. Had it not been so well-directed, acted, and written, it would have been a laughably bad melodramatic mess. This movie should never have worked, but somehow did.
James Ponsoldt’s direction of the movie is what ties it all together. With The Spectacular Now, he has established himself as a major talent who is destined for huge success (he has been hired to direct Rodham about Hilary Rodham Clinton and hired by The Weinstein Company to direct a film adaptation of the hit musical Pippin and an adaptation of Matthew Quick’s new novel). Ponsoldt’s direction is sensitive, insightful, and never intrusive. Nothing in The Spectacular Now ever feels over-directed. The film is stunningly cinematic and gorgeously shot. Ponsoldt got amazing performances out of his cast and tied everything together to make a beautiful whole.
Overall, The Spectacular Now is spectacular indeed and is a landmark film in the teen drama subgenre. Other recent (sometimes very good) coming-of-age movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower have dealt honestly with serious issues that teens deal with, but they don’t have the special touch or the honesty that The Spectacular Now has. Its unwillingness to tone down its content for a lower rating is admirable. It’s R-rated content, though, caused the film to wait years to be produced, as many studios passed on it, according to the filmmakers (Ponsoldt, Weber, and Andrew Lauren, a producer on the film were at a post-screening Q&A). While this movie has an R-rating, all older teens and parents should see this movie. I cannot think of a more important movie for modern day teens to see than The Spectacular Now because it doesn’t preach to them, it speaks.