Teen angst films are not all that uncommon. In fact, there are so many of them you start to lose count of just how many are gracing the screen at any given moment, or how many you’ve never heard of are going ‘direct to video’ or appearing on Lifetime. Adolescence is a rough time in almost everyone’s life, but it is also the most crucial because it shapes you, starts to define you, and in many instances can ruin you. It is rare that a film can capture all of these things without beating you over the head with self-indulgent ‘importance’ and so it can become a chore to wade through the murky waters of teen angst films to discover the few (and far in-between) that actually manage to say something without saying EVERYTHING.
When I saw the trailer for ‘The Spectacular Now’ and then read some comments from people anticipating the film, I got slightly nervous. There is some weighty material here, and combining alcoholism and teen abandonment, terrible fathers and overworked mothers and ‘new love’ and ‘damaged love’ and all that goes with it into one film and then trying to look like a quirky indie romantic comedy just felt like something that was going to fail, miserably.
Thankfully, ‘The Spectacular Now’ doesn’t.
Telling the story of Sutter Keely, ‘The Spectacular Now’ opens with Sutter working on an assignment where he is supposed to describe a life changing moment. So, he starts by telling about his breakup with Cassidy. As he’s telling the story another issue becomes very clear; Sutter is an alcoholic. He doesn’t take anything seriously, he lives for the party, he’s reckless and he can’t put down the bottle. Booze makes everything better. His home life is nearly non-existent. His mother works hard but provides no real guidance outside of a quip here or there, and he doesn’t know where his father is and hasn’t spoken to him for years.
Then he meets Aimee.
In everyone’s life there is that special someone how helps you become a better person, not because of what they say to you or what do to you but mostly because of what they don’t say and don’t do. For Sutter, that person is Aimee.
For me, ‘The Spectacular Now’ lives and dies in the same breath, and so it makes it hard for me to really form a review or critique that sounds focused, since I admire and yet nitpick at the same quality.
The film is so laid back.
Like I said, I initially was skeptical. How can a film that covers so many weighty moments be this quirky love story, and yet it is. It has this mellow balance of tone that feels so effortless and natural. You can’t help but fall in love with Amy and Sutter and feel this bond grow and this natural progression of character that is so fluid and likable. The dramatics and theatrics and ‘heaviness’ that could have been associated with themes such as alcoholism and broken dreams just don’t take root here, and so ‘The Spectacular Now’ establishes an easy atmosphere that is agreeable. Despite Sutter’s alcoholism, it never becomes a hard-nosed focal point. We aren’t force fed these stereotypical ‘drinking will ruin you’, ‘Sutter is wasting his life’, ‘REMOVE THE BOOZE FROM HIS HANDS’ statements, and even Aimee, this beacon of light, doesn’t give Sutter this life changing speech. She falls into his trap. She takes up drinking and never once berates him for his obvious habit. She’s blinded by love. That is why her relationship with Sutter is so important and so meaningful, because she changes him not by her pleading for him to change but by accepting him and loving him and needing him.
But with all this praise for this beautiful directorial decision, the lack of any real emotional drama makes ‘The Spectacular Now’ almost too easy. It doesn’t stick. It’s a delight to watch, and it swells in all the right places while you are watching it, but once it is over, it’s over and that is that. You don’t recall it in the same way that you recall similar films. I thought of ‘(500) Days of Summer’ a lot while watching this, that easy vibe and effortless quality, and yet that film balanced out the ease with a real memorable quality. It made a bigger impact.
‘The Spectacular Now’ just kind of fades from memory.
I liked this, and it was a great showcase for young talents (Teller and Woodley are wonderful here) and it was nice to see Kyle Chandler make a real impact this year (his brief scene colors in so much backstory), but at the end of the day ‘The Spectacular Now’ is a shade or two shy of being truly spectacular.
I give this a solid B. Oscar ignored this completely, which was to be expected. I would have loved Teller to wrack up a few 'breakthrough' mentions, but in a year with Nyong'o, Jordan and Exarchopoulos, that just wasn't going to happen.