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Review: The Spectacular Now (2013)

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Directed by: James Ponsoldt

Premise: A hard partying high school senior (Miles Teller) begins dating a quiet and studious young woman (Shailene Woodley) and rethinks his lifestyle.

What Works: The Spectacular Now is a very well-acted and smartly written coming-of-age story. It has a recognizable reality that is absent from a lot of movies. That reality is especially evident in the film’s depiction of alcohol abuse. The filmmakers don’t go out of their way to point out that the main character has a drinking problem but rather let that fact become self-evident over the course of the story. The Spectacular Now has an honesty about alcoholism that is especially refreshing; movies about addiction tend to be melodramatic or simplistic but the filmmakers of The Spectacular Now recognize a greater complexity to the issue and make it apparent that the addiction is related to deeper personal issues. This is dramatized in some especially strong sequences but they are smartly underplayed. The moments of epiphany are more impactful because of the filmmakers’ restraint. That staid quality is true of the entire picture. The cinematography of The Spectacular Now uses a lot of apparently natural lighting and scenes are staged and shot so as to quietly draw the viewer’s attention without overemphasizing the obvious. This plain look is also apparent in the actors who take the bold step of wearing ittle or no makeup. These characters do not look inaccessibly pretty the way movie actors usually do and that plainness gives the movie additional grit and credibility. One of the more outstanding qualities of The Specular Now is the way it plays like a realistic response to the many raunchy comedies of the last few years like The Hangover and Superbad. Those movies celebrate the myth of the out-of-control Friday night, where The Spectacular Now is about the reality of Saturday morning. This isn’t just drunken behavior offered up for laughs. The filmmakers of The Spectacular Now set up those images and ideas but then they juxtapose them with the consequences. A minor coup of this film is the casting of actor Miles Teller in the lead role. Teller was seen earlier this year in the drinking comedy 21 & Over and casting him in The Spectacular Now highlights the stupidity and mistaken privilege of the men-behaving-badly comedy trend. .

What Doesn’t: The Spectacular Now deals with the clichés of the coming-of-age and high school romance genres and the filmmakers do an admirable job of incorporating the clichés into the story and then reversing audience expectations. However, as the movie gets closer to its end the clichés become more frequent and the filmmakers struggle with how to square the realistic style of their movie with the fanciful endings that these stories usually demand. The finale in particular is a problem. Although it isn’t in full race-to-the-airport mode, it is close enough to be just a little disappointing. The momentum of the film is potentially building toward a darker resolution and the movie very nearly ends that way before sending its lead character on a path of reconciliation. This more uplifting resolution has a hint of being tagged on; it isn’t totally artificial but it does feel like a softer, more commercial compromise of what was a harsher but more honest ending. To this end, Shailene Woodley’s character is a little too forgiving of her boyfriend’s shenanigans and it isn’t always clear why she keeps him around, especially when he acts like an idiot. For most of the movie she comes across as a full-fledged character but in these moments Woodley is much more of a stock female romantic lead. The sound editing of The Spectacular Now is also uneven. The sound sometimes takes on a tinny quality, especially in dialogue scenes.

Bottom Line: The Spectacular Now is a tough but sensitive movie about growing up and despite some shortcomings in its ending there is a lot in it that is refreshingly honest. The picture has some exceptional performances and it deserves to sit in the ranks of movies like Good Will Hunting and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Episode: #455 (September 8, 2013)