*I’m also going to include some of my thoughts on The Way, Way Back, previously unwritten-about by me, in this review. Nominally both that film and The Spectacular Now are coming of age stories, and both are very good, but The Spectacular Now is the more ambitious and ultimately superior film. The former uses a kid’s adolescence to reveal something about adults, the latter uses two teenagers to reveal something about teenagers.
The Spectacular Now isn’t afraid to ask a lot of young actors, a bold request given that every scene features a teenager as an active participant, or at least an actor playing one. Luckily, the film was right to place its confidence in the two stars it hired, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Teller is in his mid-twenties but looks younger, Woodley only a couple years older than her shy, eager-to-please Aimee. More important than the sheer fact of their youthful appearance, though, is how utterly convincing this pair is as two high school seniors. If The Spectacular Now is a confident film, it’s a bit of an irony that its well-drawn leads have the pitch-perfect misplaced confidence of so many adolescents, so assured of their ability to independently decide what’s best for them that they fail to recognize the barricades they’ve constructed that prevent them from facing the surrounding world and from understanding the consequences of their choices. That teenagers can actively influence their fates and their futures does not mean that they are prepared to fully take the reins, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to drive the car without a license, or drive drunk like the alcoholic Sutter (Teller). What The Spectacular Now gets right is the vulnerability of your first years of independence and those first pangs of hurt that follow when you try to shed yourself of the protection you’d taken for granted. Director James Ponsoldt knows that kids like Sutter and Aimee are smart and eloquent if also insecure and deluded. In other words, they’re teenagers, and Ponsoldt has the actors and the techniques, most prominently his frequent use of the master shot, to show this off. Almost incredibly, it’s a movie about kids that actually relies on—that is actually about—kids.
The success of The Spectacular Now ultimately depends on Teller and Woodley. She’s probably the more familiar of the two, thanks to her role as Alex, George Clooney’s daughter in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Payne’s movie is a helpful primer here, and while The Descendants isn’t my favorite from his oeuvre (that’d be Sideways), I’d argue that it works almost solely because of Woodley’s performance. Her Alex is the conduit between Clooney’s cluelessness and his coming to terms with his comatose wife’s past adultery. Woodley, not Clooney, is The Descendants‘ emotional center, the one who has to carry the baggage of knowing of her mother’s infidelity while her father remains ignorant, all while shouldering the pressures attendant with high school. Without her, the crux of the film’s drama has little heft, and with her the film gives you a reason to sympathize for her family. Woodley draws on that experience here, though Aimee is more of an inverted version of Alex: Where Alex engaged in more open rebellion against her father, Aimee is non-confrontational to a fault, and would rather adopt the habits of those to whom she’s closest than stand up for herself, with her neglectful mother accustomed to Aimee taking over her newspaper delivery job morning after morning.
Sutter, charismatic and popular, can help her out somewhat in that latter department, but troublingly, as their relationship blossoms, Aimee grows as intent on guzzling booze as him, perhaps in part because she likes this newfound freedom but also in part because she thinks it will impress Sutter. (Their meet cute isn’t necessarily a “meet,” as they go to school together even if they’ve never really spoken, nor is it “cute,” because their first conversation begins when Aimee, on her mother’s paper route, finds a recently-debauched Sutter passed out on a neighbor’s lawn.) Woodley infuses Aimee with sweet immaturity, the naiveté of a young girl curious to try the two things most ardently cool to eighteen-year-olds, drinking and sex. One of the best scenes involves the first sexual experience they share, and with been-there-before Sutter and new-at-this Aimee the tone is awkward but not without grace, forgettable physically but memorable emotionally.
If Woodley is unsurprisingly brilliant, it’s Teller who is the revelation. I’d only ever seen him in Rabbit Hole, and it’s true that his part there (I don’t want to say too much about it if you haven’t seen the movie) is small but tricky. Unlike that film, however, he’s an extrovert here, the kind of guy who just by looking at him you’d swear is shooting above his league but is attractive and cool because of his wit. It’s Sutter’s sense of humor, which can disarm just about any girl he talks to, that he mixes with alcohol to create his own body armor, the potentially dangerous cocktail he uses to keep his confusion and self-loathing, stemming from his father’s absence (he and Aimee bond over this shared void), repressed. Sutter knows that he can harm others, and he’s aware that his charm is his own curse: Time and again he gains someone’s trust—a teacher (
Andre Royo Bubbles) who wants him to apply his innate intelligence to schoolwork rather than smooth talk, his boss at the tie store ( Bob Odenkirk Saul Goodman) amused by but worried for Sutter, and now, potentially, Aimee—only to betray it. Realistically and commendably, Ponsoldt doesn’t allow Sutter some come-to-Jesus moment. If Sutter, who reminds us every so often that he likes to live “in the now,” ever realizes that he should supplement his living-in-the-moment with some future planning, we worry it might be too little, too late.
You’ll notice that, except for a small aside in the preceding paragraph, the only characters I’ve mentioned from The Spectacular Now are two kids; there’s no way I could have gone 100 words, much less 900, into a review of The Way, Way Back without mentioning at least two adult characters. In fact, I could probably write 900 words without mentioning the names of the two main teenage characters, getting by solely by mentioning that they exist. And therein lies the difference between these two examples of summer bildungsroman: In one the kids are passive characters, it sufficing for the film to show that adults struggle to take care of their sons and daughters; in the other the kids are active characters, and the film must show that these kids can barely take care of themselves.
To be sure, The Way, Way Back is exceedingly well-cast. Steve Carrell is brilliantly unsettling as a complete dick who belittles his girlfriend’s son and demeans that very girlfriend. I’m not sure anyone is as adept at playing a man-child as Sam Rockwell. (In many ways, Rockwell’s Owen provides some coincidental foresight as to the road down which Sutter may be headed.) And Allison Janney is remarkably versatile, displaying her comedic chops as a drunk and clingy but well-intentioned single mother who is much more than the “See You Next Tuesday” moniker some have given her.
But Liam James and AnnaSophia Robb, the two teenage principals? They have nothing of the chemistry of Woodley and Teller. In fairness, that’s at least partly intentional, due to the shyness of James’ Duncan. Yes, Duncan does emerge from his shell, but it’s Rockwell’s Owen (and Owen’s associates at the water park where Duncan works), not Robb’s character, who makes that happen. Contrast that with The Spectacular Now, in which Sutter brings Aimee out of her own cocoon and in which there could be a price to be paid as a result. Where The Way, Way Back tells us that kids don’t know what it means to be an adult, The Spectacular Now tells us that kids don’t really know how to be kids or how to transition into adulthood. The Spectacular Now is the riskier play, certainly. How many actors under twenty-five would you confidently describe as “great”? Probably not many. But with The Spectacular Now‘s risk comes a high reward.
Augmenting that high reward is Ponsoldt’s direction and Jess Hall’s cinematography. The sex scene I referenced earlier begins with Sutter and Aimee staring at each other, but the movie places the camera in between them, as if to place you in the middle of their conversation, the effect being that their faces are looking directly at you even though their gaze is directed through you, to the partner sitting directly across. Ponsoldt borrowed this technique from the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds), and it’s a compositional style that Roger Ebert argued allows the viewer to “regard [the characters] objectively,” essentially “ke[eping] us outside the conversation” even though the film places us inside it spatially. Ebert’s position on Ozu fits The Spectacular Now, too, the latter a film that opens to us the lives of two people but prefers that we also perceive their youthful imperfections.
Because Aimee’s and Sutter’s imperfections so often manifest themselves in drink, I particularly loved a shot that finds the pair standing in front of a glass window in their prom clothes, with the lighting such that you can see their reflections in the window inexactly mirroring their bodies. It’s as if you’re seeing double, which the two of them will probably be saying later after a few more swigs from their flasks. Ponsoldt makes heavy and effective use of the master shot, too, the one I’ve just described being one, knowing that he can keep Teller and Woodley in the same frame because they can talk and behave like teenagers. There’s nothing forced, and it’s pretty astounding just how long Ponsoldt allows some of his takes to extend, though you won’t notice it at first because Aimee’s and Sutter’s conversations unfold so naturally. (The one case of non-naturalistic dialogue is Sutter’s frequent overtures to “the now,” which is rather literary. All said, though, you wouldn’t necessarily believe the film is based on a novel.)
Like most, kids, Sutter and Aimee think they know what’s best for them. Sutter thinks cursing in his college admissions essay is edgy, they both think that Sutter’s meeting his long-lost father (
Kyle Chandler Coach Taylor) will produce a beneficial relationship rather than a cringeworthy discovery, and if Sutter’s tie store boss tells him that he hopes he finds a girl to “yank him out of neutral,” Sutter remains convinced that’s not the case: “What are you talking about? I’m in overdrive!” Sutter is in neutral, even if he still tends to run over a lot of people. Aimee can try to pull him out of that stasis, but she’ll need Sutter to meet her halfway, and Sutter’s self-destructive habits are quite ingrained. The Spectacular Now asks first if Aimee can succeed, and second if that’s a good thing. It’s tough being a kid.