I’m not sure there is a genre of film that is more polarizing than a Coming of Age drama set in High School. Half of the people watching will find it instantly relatable, charming and sweet while the other half will find it overly pretentious and annoying. James Ponsoldt’s third feature-length film, The Spectacular Now (based on the novel by Tim Tharp), does a great job of making sure the first group greatly outnumbers the second by crafting a timeless story that may be set in high school, but has far-reaching themes that travel across all age groups.
This film centers around Sutter (Miles Teller), a highly charismatic high school senior who lives his life without regard to the past or the future by merely trying to have a great time every conceivable moment. We first meet Sutter when he wakes up on the lawn of Aimee (Shailene Woodley) after getting blackout drunk when his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) breaks up with him. Far from letting this get his spirits down for long, Sutter instantly sets his sights on Aimee, a cute but very shy and unimposing girl that he previously never knew existed. Aimee is the counterpoint to Sutter…A girl who runs a paper route every morning to help support her family while working hard to get into college and sacrificing having a great time now to have a solid foothold in the future.
Aimee is instantly attracted to Sutter’s lifestyle and his seemingly perfect philosophy on life. Sutter turns her on to frequent drinking and letting go of problems with her home life by shutting them all out and just living in the moment. Sutter takes to Aimee almost as a project at first, a charity case who he can help be just as awesome as he is himself while he ultimately tries to win back the heart of his ex. He convinces Aimee to stand up for herself at home, and assert that she should be allowed to have her own life as a teenager and not deal with the pressures of keeping her family afloat. In return, Aimee makes Sutter begrudgingly promise he will also stand up to his own mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whom he blames for pushing his father away and now preventing him from having any contact with him.
Aimee’s insistence on Sutter following through on his promise really brings out the purpose of Sutter’s lifestyle. He is not living in the moment to celebrate life; he is doing so to shut out the pain of his past and fears of the future. This is evident when Sutter does reunite with his father (Kyle Chandler), who we see has lived his life by the exact same philosophy. Instead of seeing his lifestyle as noble, Sutter now sees how extremely selfish it can be. By seeing himself in his father, he is confronted with how his philosophy will affect his future no matter how hard he tries to avoid it, and realizing that maybe he’s not quite as awesome as he would like to believe. The rest of the film deals with Sutter confronting himself and his feelings for Aimee and Cassidy by wrestling with everything that he has always avoided for so long.
The acting in this film is tremendous, as seen by winning the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival for the two leads. This was my first exposure to Miles Teller, and I think he has a great future ahead of him. Same goes for Shailene Woodley, who was first introduced to the film world as George Clooney’s daughter in the Oscar-winning The Descendants in 2011. Also of special note is Kyle Chandler, who steals the film with the best work of his career in a much different role than being a high ranking CIA officer in seemingly every film released in 2012.
Ultimately what makes this film great is that Ponsoldt portrays it with a lot of realism. We see these characters without makeup, with no regard to scars or blemishes, and it helps that the characters look like they belong in high school. It takes a character who could be a clichéd cardboard cutout, usually portrayed as the most fun guy in the world, and fleshes him out by showing why such a lifestyle is completely unsustainable in the real world. We recognize Sutter in people we knew in high school and envied for always having such a great time, coworkers who go out drinking late on a Wednesday despite needing to wake up at 5 AM the following morning, or perhaps even in ourselves.
Conclusion [9 of 10]
I had the privilege of seeing this film in Sundance Film Festival USA, where 10 cities across the country are selected to show a film from the festival with the filmmaker present for a Q&A session after the film. The fact that Tucson, Arizona was selected along the likes of Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco is pretty amazing, and James Ponsoldt was very engaging and forthright in answering any question the audience had for him. This film probably won’t be released in theaters until late in the year, but I really hope it captures an audience as Ponsoldt is a great up and coming voice who tells a very engaging story and gets the most out of his actors. Even if you do find yourself in the second group that doesn’t relate well to the film and finds it annoying and pretentious, I think there is plenty here to still allow a good viewing experience.