MOVIE REVIEW: The Spectacular Now

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THE SPECTACULAR NOW-- 4 STARS

Recently, a good college buddy of mine asked me "What ever happened to the 'high school movie,' Don?"  He sure brought up a fair question that gave me pause.  He was right.  They don't make them like they used to, if even at all.  The 1980's days of John Hughes and the plucky WB/CW faces of the 1990's are both long gone.

The dearth of the so-called "high school movie" has been phased out by changing tastes and an enormous millennial generation that dominates a marketplace greater than those 1980's/1990's kids who have all grown up and likely become adults and parents now (myself included).  Those folks just don't have time to go to movies anymore like they used to.  Instead of Sixteen Candles, they're watching Breaking Bad and Mad Men at home on DVR and only go to the movies when they are dragged by their kids.

Simply put, the generation of the "high school movie" as we used to know it grew up.  Just look at last year's surprisingly honest-yet-still-funny American Reunion which showcased that entire generation in a different place in this new century and decade.  It's a topic and question I've been slowly crafting an editorial story on since my buddy asked the question back around the beginning of the year.  My first answer for him would be that high school movies are supposed to grow up and change.  They are supposed to match the generation of the moment.  When kids change, so do the movies.  We've seen this before across generations, from Rebel Without a Cause all the way to Superbad and every Breakfast Club and Clueless in between.

I've held myself back from writing that editorial piece because I saw the promise of a little trio of 2013 high school-set "coming-of-age" films that were coming this summer, namely The Kings of SummerThe Way Way Back, and The Spectacular Now.  Coupled with last summer's exceptional The Perks of Being a Wallflower (a movie in my "10 best" of last year)all three 2013 films looked to stamp a different route and tone with making a so-called "high school movie" in this new era.

Now that I've seen all four of those films, culminating with The Spectacular Now, playing now in select cities and expanding nationwide on August 28th, I can finally give my upcoming editorial a happy ending and give my buddy a second definitive answer to his question.  That second answer is "Give it time, give it thought, and look a little deeper for the 'high school movie.'  They are out there and there are still coming."

Where The Kings of Summer took on a Stand By Me backwoods feel and The Way Way Back bounced you between hopeful laughs and tears with father figures, The Spectacular Now centers on decidedly more dramatic and romantic path.  Written by (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and adapted from Tim Tharp's novel, The Spectacular Now dives as deep and as real into a high school romance as we've seen in a long time.  It's still a coming-of-age film, but absent of many of that niche's cliches.  While it is not a truly great film, especially after The Way Way Back and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it is a special one all its own.

Up-and-coming young actor Miles Teller (Footloose, 21 and Over) plays Sutter Keely, the life of the party of his suburban high school.  He's got the popularity, the hot girlfriend (21 Jump Street's Brie Larson), a talkative job at the local menswear store, a car, and all the charm and charisma in the world.  However, he's also got the divorced household, a double-shift working mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh, 32 years removed from Fast Times at Ridgemont High), the absent father (portrayed later in the film by Kyle Chandler) he hasn't seen in a decade, a successful older sister (Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World star Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and quite the flask-toting drinking problem for a teen.  He lives "in the now" and thinks very little of what lies ahead for him after graduation.

After partying to drown out the bummed vibes of his girlfriend breaking up with him, he wakes up hungover on the lawn of Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley of The Descendants).  She's the clean-cut, no frills good student good girl who covers her mom's paper route and digs old manga comics.  She's completely different than any of the girls Sutter hangs around with.  Maybe it's a rebound and maybe it's more, but Sutter is quickly drawn to her easy and affectionate disposition.  They start to date, set a prom date, and really hit it off.  As graduation approaches, the love of "now" starts to ripple backwards to Sutter's past and forward to bring his unplanned future into focus.

The Spectacular Now is director James Ponsoldt's third straight Sundance Film Festival success after 2006's Off the Black and last year's Smashed (starring Winstead and Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul).  At this year's festival, The Spectacular Now received the Special Jury Prize for Acting.  See the film and you will see why.  Miles Teller is quite the new find in his largest role to date.  Write his name down.  He's going to be somebody.  The kid is better than the young John Cusack comparisons.  He dynamically embodies the good and bad hues his role required.  Shailene Woodley, as we saw in The Descendants, has Oscar-worthy chops greater than her ABC Family channel origins and hides her glamour well here as Aimee.  Their chemistry is very good together.  Outside of the young leads, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler are notable for breaking their usual typecasting to play very different parents and influences on Sutter.  That performance core was worthy of the prize they received.

Many who will see The Spectacular Now are going to look on paper and see a 2013 Say Anything...  That's great company for Ponsoldt's film to be mentioned in, but the comparisons are fair and unfair at the same time.  Both films offer excellent high school romances that resonate and matter.  There's no doubt about that, but the two movies couldn't be more different in time, purpose, and intention.  

Say Anything... happens after graduation during the summer before ultimate choices that have been made have to be acted on.  The Spectacular Now steps back into the end of senior year where those choices haven't quite come into focus yet, making the future of our characters a little more wide open and moldable.  I like the latter's way of going about this style of film better.  Even though it drifts a little off the rails towards the end,The Spectacular Now is a solid and impressive film that is worthy of your attention.  I can't call it better thanThe Perks of Being a Wallflower from last year orThe Way Way Back from last month in the same genre, but it's a positive and well-crafted development in this new phase and new generation of high school movies.  More importantly, I can finally write that grand scheme editorial.  Stay tuned!

LESSON #1: THE PEAKS AND VALLEYS OF LIVING IN THE NOW-- With high school graduation on the horizon (more on that in a minute), the majority of high school seniors are likely doing their best to "live in the now" and savor every moment.  It's Sutter's mantra and he rarely thinks about tomorrow or any kind of big picture.  There are peaks and valleys to that lifestyle.  The peaks are the unstressed freedoms without thought of consequences and the care-free clarity of living the present to the fullest.  The valleys are the repressed past that doesn't get reflected on and the unknown future containing pitfalls, consequences, and repercussions.

LESSON #2: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE EXTROVERT MEETS AND FALLS FOR THE INTROVERT-- This is not the first movie in coming-of-age history to pair the popular kid with the quiet, nerdy one, but the effects Sutter and Aimee have on each other here is unique.  Let's start with Sutter's influence.  As the popular extrovert, Sutter takes Aimee to a different world and level than she's used to as the introvert.  Going to prom with him was a symbolic step in itself.  She begins to drink and cuss as he does and learns to hang around the highs and lows of his partying ways.  He challenges her to live in the now the way he does.  He encourages Aimee to speak out against her mother not wanting her to leave the house and go to college.  In essence, Sutter helps Aimee come out of her shell a little.

LESSON #3: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE INTROVERT MEETS AND FALLS FOR THE EXTROVERT-- Aimee's effects on Sutter are even stronger.  She's a different girl than he's ever dealt with.  Aimee opens his eyes to a slower and meeker lifestyle from the fast lane and he seeks out her interests in return.  She helps him study and encourages him to not let graduation be the end of his education.  Aimee shows him what true caring and affection look like, leading to a love stronger than a fling or rebound.  Playing at her speed, Sutter learns to be more responsible and reflective about his present, his past, and his future.  All of this growth happens when Aimee enters Sutter's life.

LESSON #4: HIGH SCHOOLERS IDENTIFYING TURNING POINTS AND FINDING CLOSURE BEFORE GRADUATION-- We might not see it, but high schoolers have tougher choices than we give them credit for.  High school graduation is an enormous turning point for every new man and woman at that age.  For the first time, they have to give their lives direction.  In many cases, they have to find closure with their youth.  Yes, they are still "young," but they aren't kids anymore once that diploma hits their hands.  They have to let being a kid go, at least a little.  They have to choose how they are going to enter society and adulthood.  Some have planned and charted their next steps, college or otherwise, and have reached the maturity point to be ready for that turning point.  Others don't think that far and don't want their youth to end.  That maturity light bulb hasn't come on yet.  We all know a 30-year-old that still thinks they are 18 and we all remember an 18-year-old who knew where their life would be at 30.  We see that crossroads and closure with both Sutter and Aimee in this film in poignant ways.