Sundance Review: 'The Spectacular Now'
The rare kind of teen drama that earns every thing you feel
It's very easy to talk of Sundance as the place where new talent is found, with bold-hearted first-time film makers presenting their work with hope and nerve. But as Sundance becomes an institution -- literally and figuratively -- it's also important to note Sundance as a place where talent can not only be found but also as a place where talent can show growth. That's certainly the case with James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now," premiering at Sundance just one year after his strong alcohol-and-love drama "Smashed" played in competition. "Smashed," to be sure, was one of the stronger indie dramas here last year-- but "The Spectacular Now" is, if anything, even better, featuring two performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley that, in a just world where The Oscars and suchlike were actually about quality acting and not clever marketing, would earn them every possible consideration.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is at the edge of graduating from High School in small-town Georgia, and all would be well -- if his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) hadn't just broken up with him. And as Miles explains his plight in voice-over as part of filling out his college application essay, "The Spectacular Now" looks remarkably like any other teen movie. But as Sutter charms and cajoles his way through schoolwork he doesn't really care about and life with his over-worked mom (and I cannot praise Teller's gift-of-gab, gift-of-glib work here enough; it's as if Sutter, in the absence of a father, taught himself how to be a man by watching all of Bill Murray's filmography and taking notes), we get the sense that Sutter's living in the moment so well precisely because that means not having to think about the past or future.
But one morning after a bout of drinking, Sutter's woken up on a lawn by his classmate Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) as she works her mom's paper route; he offers to 'help' her, but mostly so he can figure out where the hell his car is. And then he thinks he can help Aimee -- who's bright and shy, good-hearted but self-doubting -- come into her own a little bit. And, as we all know, the best way to avoid your problems is to focus on someone else's.
The script, by "(500) Days of Summer" writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber from Tim Tharp's novel, is sharp and subtle and funny and sad -- and yet it's Ponsoldt's direction you can feel shaping every scene and the film. Unlike the agreeable and over-praised "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," which coasted on a mix of nostalgia, cheekbones and starpower to make up for its inert, drama-free, plot-free preciousness, "The Spectacular Now" features kids who look like what they are -- with bad skin, bad dance moves, and clothes that come from Wal-Mart and not the couture work of the wardrobe department. It also features some great supporting turns by actors in its adult roles, some too good to share. There's one seemingly-false moment in the final act ... that then gets turned into a very funny, very in-character moment.
Sutter and Aimee's romance, we think, can't end well -- and yet we're unprepared for how tenderly it unfolds against all odds, or how horribly wrong things go after that. "The Spectacular Now" gets the wonder and terror of love -- how awesome and awful it is to finally find someone who dares you to be a better person and think about a future, any future, and how that can be so terrifying that it can make you want to destroy love just so you don't have to take up that liberating burden. There are sudden shocks and turns in the film -- but they're earned, based in character, and predicated on what we've seen happen before. "The Spectacular Now" is a finely-made, assured and deeply felt film that still has hope and love in it, precisely because it understands, and shows, what hope and love cost. It's early in the festival, but it's not too early to note how this film is even better than the excellent "Smashed," and it's also spectacularly difficult to imagine a better dramatic film at Sundance this year than "The Spectacular Now."