The Spectacular Now

Rating: Shallene Woodley is as unforgettable here as she was in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011), and she reminds everyone that the key to being 18 is not to lose focus.

The Spectacular NowIf only high school seniors had the ability to view this perplexing period of life through a crystal ball. Reflecting an experience that we’ve all gone through, Director James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now describes a time that was anything but spectacular in hindsight.

Though this convoluted period of time frequently has you centering on little else than friendships, sports, sexual encounters and madcap fun, the point is that you are really doing nothing more than preparing for an unknown future. The kids dominating high school’s “food chain” are likely to mean very little in the grand scheme of things, and it would be far better for everyone not to get too distracted and simply find a way to concentrate on the “spectacular future.”;

In this film, we find students with recognizable problems at home. Miles Teller does a wonderful job playing Sutter, an 18-year old boy hiding a bad alcohol problem while wanting to be nothing more than the most popular kid in the class. While he is strongly attracted to the blonde Cassidy (a good  performance by Brie Larson), he truly can’t be faithful to anyone but himself.

Caring nothing about grades or college, he simply wants to find the next party where he can get completely wasted and become the center of everyone’s attention. In the process, he wakes up one weekend morning on an unknown lawn, and meets a classmate that he has never taken the time to talk to before.

That young classmate was Aimee, played by Shallene Woodley in an immensely captivating performance. She lives with her mother who works lengthy shifts at a local hospital, and she helps deliver morning newspapers to help meet financial needs. Additionally, she is everything Sutter is not, preferring to read in her spare time and focus on college down the road.

Both become attracted to each other for different reasons. Aimee is able to see through Sutter’s façade, while Sutter initially views her as an intriguing detour while he sees if he can win Cassidy back. Aimee is as decent as Sutter is shallow, and she gradually forces him to confront the future, something that he passionately wants to avoid.

What makes this film resonate is Director Ponsoldt’s voyage into teenagers’ personal lives at home. Aimee’s widowed mother would rather see her daughter stay in the nest and work rather than leave for college and force her to confront loneliness.

Sutter also lives with his mother, as his father, having left years ago for questionable reasons, is a distant memory. His personal life has been devoid of any guidance from a caring father, and he gradually is able to realize that he is on the verge of dumping his life down a rathole after secretly meeting his father, discovering him to be a pathetic, selfish drunk.

The Spectacular Now stirs a lot of emotions, and I was reminded of the high school reunions I have attended every five years. I graduated from Batesville High School here in Indiana in 1965, and our last reunion in 2010 was our 45th. There were 103 students in my graduating class, and a lot of my old classmates attend these reunions.

Tellingly, those who elect to avoid this rendezvous designed to relive fading memories of our “spectacular now” are almost always those who were champion athletes and cheerleaders in high school. Many of us in attendance drew the conclusion long ago that the studs gaining fame and attention on the football field and basketball court, along with the hot, attractive teenage girls who cheered on the sidelines, have been affected by life’s journey in a fashion that they don’t want to share with old friends. Unfortunately, being a teen was a “spectacular now” for many of them, and you get the feeling that they, like Sutter, have gone on a journey that has proven to be a disappointment that they would rather hide.

Regardless, the only criticism I have of the film is Aimee’s decision to embrace Sutter after he nearly gets her killed. Though I wanted to find fault with her, maybe she was smart enough to view Sutter as a human book that you couldn’t judge by its cover. You sensed that Aimee saw Sutter as a struggling kid worth saving, and that in the end became the ultimate reward of this intelligent film.