Thursday, 24 October 2013

57th LFF Review: The Spectacular Now

Director: James Ponsoldt

Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber

Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Masam Holden, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Synopsis: Following a break-up with his girlfriend Sutter (Teller) decides to seek a different path with different company. During this quater-life crisis he meets Aimee (Woodley), a sweet girl who wants nothing but to share the “spectacular now” with him. The only problem is Sutter has a drinking problem and sees himself slowly destroying Aimee’s innocence.

Very recently a British rom-com placed a great deal of emphasis on living in the moment; Richard Curtis’ About Time was full of zest and emotion in its championing of the present. Across the pond James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now aims at promoting the same ideals, though – arguably – with more heartbreak and drama. The film may be categorised as a coming of age teen romantic comedy/drama but it’s wildly different to films under the same label. For one, its protagonist is a largely unlikeable figure to follow throughout and, secondly, most will find more upset than laughs in its 95 minute runtime.

Its aim to unsettle the audience faintly works throughout. The main character is a teenage alcoholic, leading along an innocent girl still with his mind on his ex. Meandering at points, the film does not always hit hard or powerfully – it’s ultimate flaw. It does, however, lead up to an affecting final 30 minutes where writing, acting and directing is exceedingly noteworthy.

Director James Ponsoldt has continually touched upon the subject of alcoholism (Smashed and Off the Black), unquestionably aware of the drama and turmoil that comes with it. Working through the ages in relation to alcoholism (Nick Nolte, Aaron Paul, coming to Miles Teller), now viewing it in conjunction with teenagers, has sharpened his portrayal of it all. Nothing in the film feels clich├ęd – nor do characters appear like caricatures – so you’re left with a convincingly biting story.

Ponsoldt brings a wealth of knowledge to the film yet it is his actors that bring it to life. Both Teller and Woodley’s performances are tremendously naturalistic. It’s Teller’s film and he reminds us of his talent with subtle changes between drunk and sober (eventually obscuring that distinction). His break-out role in Rabbit Hole showed him stealing scenes from Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, moving on to projects where that was sadly absent. In The Spectacular Now he regains the title of an exciting new talent. His ability to make you empathise with his character whilst simultaneously seeing him as heinous is brilliant.

Woodley – an immediate star after The Descendants – favourably adds to her award-worthy CV with her quiet and charming turn here. Supplying jollity against the melancholy of Teller’s storyline, Woodley gives the film its heart. Without her the film would, in all probability, fail. Woodley’s Aimee gradually starts to shape the film and even with dubious narrative U-turns she keeps it believable. Had Aimee’s character had more within the script it could have bettered the film; its heavy focus on Sutter eclipses the potential significance of Aimee’s narrative.

Whether the general public will see the film’s deeper messages remains to be seen. For those understanding of the “now” motif’s complexity, Aimee and Sutter’s story is heart-rending. Whilst Aimee looks toward the future, Sutter is stuck in the moment. He chooses the comfortable and familiar over possibility and the unknown. If the film often lags in sections its message about “this point in time”, and the delusions that underpin that, stays with you long after. Sutter’s confusion about what’s best and Aimee’s susceptibility to someone like Sutter is tragic. Furthermore, the constant reminder of Sutter’s addiction is always moving. How Ponsoldt shows this (like Sutter avoiding sources of water – whether they be waterfalls or drinking fountains – completely ignoring the notion of sobriety and purity) is inspired.

Although not always gripping, The Spectacular Now contains great acting and direction. Teller and Woodley continue on their road to awards glory, with Ponsoldt hopefully joining them with nominations and/or wins.


Also posted on LiveForFilms

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