I have a soft spot for teen rom-coms, especially those of the John Hughes ilk. On the other hand, there has been a proliferation of rom-coms about young white male leads, and these movies tend to have common issues—like the “Sensitive White Boy Fantasy” that James discussed in his review of Warm Bodies. In fact, the genre has been largely exhausted and now seems like a way for male writers to live out fantasies for characters who won’t do the legwork to form a relationship. Even generally solid films like Ruby Sparks can’t resist urges to wrap everything up way too cleanly. So, sadly, any teen rom-com brings out a degree of skepticism on my part, and sometimes the feeling of been-there-done-that can’t be shaken entirely. Still, these kinds of movies can have an impact, and one of this year’s critical darlings skips many of the major pitfalls of its subject matter.
The Spectacular Now (2013)
Plot: Sutter (Miles Teller) is an enthusiastic (and slightly alcoholic) high school senior who exits a seemingly great relationship with classmate Cassidy (Brie Larson). He soon meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley), who does not share his affinity for parties but is intelligent, funny, kind, and down-to-earth. Their relationship grows and prom and yatta-yatta-yatta.
I don’t mean to dismiss the plot as worthless, but it’s certainly not new.
The Spectacular Now is, after all, a genre film, wherein a young, white, affluent high schooler with some serious issues falls for a girl who is his opposite, balancing out those issues. I admit that my bias against people like Sutter—who have a sense of entitlement and mental anguish about being a teenager wrapped up in false profundity—put me off of this movie immediately. Sutter makes poor decisions and is an ass at times. Moreover, the love interest, Aimee, has that air of “the perfect girl” that exemplifies screenwriters’ desires more than human characterization.
But over the course of the movie, I realized that this facade has layers behind it. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have managed to create an intriguing character study that bears resemblance to the first film I ever wrote about for Rooster Illusion, (500) Days of Summer. The Spectacular Now feels less like a deconstruction, though, and more like a reflection of some high schoolers. Sutter has issues at home, as does Aimee, and the problems affect their abilities to obtain a healthy lifestyle full of proper mixes of social interaction and personal success. Maybe that’s old hat, but it’s also a very real problem for many people, and the way that the writers and director, James Ponsoldt, capture that is genuine and heartfelt.
The rhythm of The Spectacular Now captures high school problems in a way that does not feel ironic or melodramatic, but real. The setup is familiar but the development is not, because it intends to capture truth rather than construct narrative. The dialogue is natural, as are the characters’ missteps, such as Sutter’s inability to move on completely from his ex, Cassidy. He screws up, but it doesn’t lead to huge fallouts with Aimee, or a punch from Cassidy’s new boyfriend. Events happen, words are exchanged, people grow, and life continues. Whether I like the characters or not, I cannot deny that they feel like people. Major kudos to the actors for that, because they deliver flawlessly realistic performances.
Also, this might be a shallow thing to praise, but I like the way the actors look like common people. The two leads are not traditionally attractive like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. You could imagine bumping into them in any high school. The interactions share that non-Hollywood sensibility, including a sex scene that develops slowly, intimately, and—in my opinion—honestly for a movie about high school kids.
Beyond the mimetic representation of high school, though, is the intriguing commentary on issues of this age group that aren’t often addressed. I refer specifically to alcoholism, something that does not often get discussed in terms of the eighteen-year-old age group. Sutter’s alcoholism is rampant and impacts his life negatively, never overtaking the story but always influencing it. No one confronts it, and everyone’s unwillingness to do so calls attention to the numerous problems facing teenagers that don’t get addressed. Again, the writers have an awareness of this age group that makes the film perceptive rather than idealistic.
The Spectacular Now is a heartfelt movie, and it portrays familiar situations and perhaps unlikeable characters with intent to reflect reality in a way that most movies of this genre fail to do. I’m somewhat baffled by just how well-received the movie is, as it does not have earth-shatteringly new or amazing characters or story-lines, but I can say that it is worthwhile and thought-provoking, despite—or perhaps because of—familiarity from similar genre movies. In a time where romance and teenage dramas are dripped in irony and pretense, The Spectacular Now is refreshing if only because it does not judge; it simply shows.