Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Spectacular Now (review by contributor Simon Opitz)

Every week, we will feature a written review by contributor Simon Opitz. These reviews will be of a film the hosts of the First Time Watchers podcast have not discussed on the show. You can find the rest of Simon's reviews at


The Spectacular Now 2013    

Watched Aug 23, 2013

[Rating: 4.5 out 5]

One of the most subtle, layered and nontraditional high school movies of all time, The Spectacular Now absolutely lives up to its title.
The acting is the best I've seen all year bar none. Every member of the cast is firing on all cylinders, likely due to Ponsoldt's ability to subtly imbue his characters with dimension solely by performance. Miles Teller deserves a fucking Oscar for this film. He handles a very diverse and subtle role PERFECTLY. This forms the backbone of why the film is so great: it's real. It's not just real, it brings all the complexities that come with reality of a Dardennes film.
Ponsoldt's direction mutes the comedy, but only to a degree where it'll catch you off guard with an unexpected burst of humor. This is FAR more effective than constantly going for laughs. The humor is practically incidental, though it feels it was written as a comedy, and probably was given the writers' previous oeuvre. It's just enough to enliven the tone before it descends into a very serious third act.
Teller plays a guy who was popular throughout high school, but not enough that his peers would hold him in any esteem once it came to the end of senior year and he showed no signs of moving on. That's the thing about popularity, it fades, as does everything. You cannot preserve "the now" as is his motivation, or lack thereof, in the film. He lives with little self knowledge, always allowing circumstance to push him along. He slowly begins to learn things about himself he doesn't like. He descends from just living in an alcohol preserved haze to full on self loathing, jettisoning the people he loves most and who love him the most. As he prepares to enter the real world, he slowly realizes that he will have to swim on his own and he's completely unprepared for that. Other people will no longer be able to tell him what to do, and as what he sees as a bad person, that frightens him deeply. He's redeemed from following in the footsteps of his father by his mother, who he'd previously seen as nothing but a nag, but is ultimately the one person who HAS to stay by his side. She reminds him of his trademark affability, and how he's letting that go to waste. He isn't worthless or unloved. No one is.
Shailene Woodley is an absolute DELIGHT in this. THIS feels like a person I might have known. She and Teller's characters both hit that perfect balance between naive and experienced that's really every kid coming out into the world She has interests that make up who she is and that will continue to define her into her real life. It feels as if she will just roll right into the next stage in life seamlessly. When Teller begins to realize how awful he really is beneath the charm he realizes she's a far better person than he is. He may have scooped her up from obscurity but it was in a station in life that A) didn't matter and B) would ultimately hurt her success in real life. However, she's grounded enough to not slip into his way of life before he realizes he's been attracting her towards him (he didn't take their relationship very seriously) and consequently his self-destructive way of life. He cuts her off at probably the exact right time, but it's clear that she's gained confidence and life experience from being with him, and not in a "learning from your mistakes" kind of way.
They take things from the positive sides of each other's characters, and possibly in her case, the negative side as well.
This isn't to call her flawless; she's rather just...untouched. This makes her more naive than Teller in the more corporeal aspects of life. Falling for him really was not a good move. But the disconnect of her book-smarts and street-smarts is once again perfect. The romance, and really everything for that matter, is never contrived, well developed, and resonant.
Enough has been said already about the balanced (there's that word again, the keyword to the film's success), non judgmental way it portrays alcohol abuse, so I'll just say "I agree."
The cinematic language is subtle and restrained as well. Using a lot of yellows to symbolize drunken haze by evoking the color of beer, it never goes too far, allowing Teller's irresponsible drunkenness to be felt in a realer world. It favors a lot of longer takes not only to let the brilliant actors breathe, quiet the proceedings down significantly, and heighten the sense of realism, but to give this sense of a prolonged moment of elation that Teller's always searching for. He's content in it, but it's ultimately pretty empty, as signified by the minimalist sound design. This isn't always the case though; it unfortunately avoids going full-Van Sant. I wouldn't call it the most artfully directed film of the year by any stretch, especially not on a visual level at least, but it does its job better than it'd have you initially believe.
I only have ONE other problem. There's one place where it's shown that the reason why Teller's character asked Woodley's to the prom is that he was drunk, and it's played that he's leading her on or is at least not really serious about their relationship at all. He's attracted to her outward persona more than who she really is underneath. He also falls for her out of his old girlfriend wanting, rather NEEDING to move on. The ONE issue I have with the film is that tonally it sometimes feels more like a real relationship than the teen relationship it is. It muddles the distance Teller keeps from Woodley. He's happy to take her to prom even when not (or rather, less) drunk, even buying her a present (an admittedly hilarious choice of a flask). The line between real relationship and high school infatuation is the only one it shouldn't have ridden. It relies on us never being able to trust or understand Teller's intent or level of drunkenness to work and that's a little frustrating. A second watch may make this a five star film, but I'm fairly confident it didn't quite stick the landing there.
People may start to fall away from you if you're "stuck in neutral" as they grow and change and you don't. But that doesn't mean you have to let them go. You can change. You MUST change. Preserving "the now" makes it stale and you begin to eat yourself from the inside out by doing it and soon you're a Spring Breaker. It makes you a relic, because the future IS now. Change is the only constant. Living in a "now" like that may be scary, but it's the key to surviving outside your miserable self, and ultimately, meaningful happiness.
Teller promises the audience a change in a cautiously optimistic ending filled with the PERFECT balance of hope and doubt. He returns to Woodley, wondering if she can forgive him. It recalls City Lights in its final shots, and I'm proud to say it lives up to the reference. This is a magnificent film, with James Ponsoldt's delicate tonal balance in nearly every instance promising HUGE things from him.
It's already my favorite high school movie ever made. Make it yours today.

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