Release date (U.S.): August 2nd, search 2013
Running time: 95 minutes
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, Tim Tharp
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chander, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
The poster for The Spectacular Now is quite misleading. Upon first seeing it, my eye was drawn to the girl in the yellow dress amidst a sea of green. Two teenagers sitting on the trunk of a used sedan, dressed for prom, and the giant words THE SPECTACULAR NOW. Clearly this is a teen movie about first love, about high school, about a time and place when the world was right at our fingertips. The Spectacular Now indeed. What I didn’t know was that the present the girl in the yellow dress is holding is not an innocent Prom Corsage. It’s a flask.
The boy in the poster is Sutter (Miles Teller), a high school senior who doesn’t want to leave high school, his town of Athens, GA or the bottle. The movie opens with a montage of him partying, having sex with his girlfriend (Brie Larson), and drinking. He narrates all this with excitement and reverence. He loves himself, he loves everyone around him, but he especially loves drinking. A lot of teenagers drink, but few of them carry a pocket flask and spike their Big Gulps with brandy.
Once the toast of the town with everyone dancing around him, Sutter starts to notice the attention leaving him. It’s senior year and kids are realizing that they have a future ahead of them, better get working on it. Sutter scoffs at the future and wonders why everyone else doesn’t. His girlfriend needs someone she can see a future with–Sutter isn’t that guy by a long shot–so she dumps him. Not to worry, he has everything he could want: a car, an easy-going job at a suit and tie shop, and a fake ID. The now is the only thing he has going for him, and now seems pretty spectacular.
One of those students with their whole life in front of them is that girl in the yellow dress, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She’s seventeen, cute, smart, and studious. While doing her Mom’s early morning paper route, she comes across the comatose Sutter lying in someone’s front yard. She goes to check on him, and it’s clear that she knows exactly whom she is dealing with, I’m willing to bet that she’s had a crush on him since freshman year. Sutter squints his eyes through his drunken haze, pulls his faculties together, and ends up helping Aimee with her route. Watching Sutter interact with Aimee, it’s easy to see why he’s so attractive to women: he’s fun, funny, quick with a compliment, and easygoing. If Sutter had his own soundtrack, The Smiths “This Charming Man” would kick it off. Aimee starts to melt and Sutter is freshly single. A relationship quickly blossoms.
Dating the good girl isn’t going to fix Sutter. He likes Aimee, but is ready to run back to his ex-girlfriend if given the chance. Aimee on the other hand is head over heels. When Sutter goes in for a kiss, Aimee hears wedding bells. In Sutter she sees the possibility of a life that she’s only read about in fairy tales and seen in romance movies. When he begins to realize he isn’t good for the people around him, he starts to push her away, only to have Aimee springing back just as hard. She knows all about Sutter’s drinking, but she says nothing. Why? Because she doesn’t want to be a nag, even partaking in Sutter’s many drinking rituals.
There was a moment where I worried that the movie might go in the direction of The Days of Wine and Roses and Aimee would end up the one with the serious drinking problem. Thankfully, director James Ponsoldt and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber don’t let that happen. Sutter is the one with the problem, and it’s his problem to fix.
What’s the genesis of Sutter’s drinking? The movie leaves that ambiguous, although Sutter does tell Aimee that his first drink was when he was six-years-old and was given to him by his dad. When Sutter finally gets face-to-face with his old man for the first time since he was a child, the past remains murky, but the future is crystal clear. Tommy (played with precision by Kyle Chandler) is a lifelong alcoholic, knows it, is incredibly pained by it, but isn’t going to lift a finger to change it. He admits that he did some things that he is not proud of but, “that’s in the past, and the past is the past. I live in the now.” A line not un-familiar to Sutter. Tommy is a drinker, a womanizer, and just like Sutter, a charismatic narcissist. The parallel between the two is a tad obvious, but probably accurate for a lot of people.
Ponsoldt’s previous movie, Smashed, was about two high-functioning alcoholics and the rift created when one of them tries to sober up. Smashed and The Spectacular Now aren’t concerned that these characters might not make it, they simply watch them go through the stages, fighting the battles of addiction, and the audience has to decide what they hope happens after the credits roll. While watching Smashed, I wanted Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to sober up, but I couldn’t help but wonder why she wanted to. What did she want that was just out of her grasp, held back by the bottle? What had she lost because of excessive drinking? As she points out herself, it wasn’t until she sobered up that things started to go wrong for her. In The Spectacular Now, things are just starting to go wrong, and they’re only going to get worse. It’s time for Sutter to make a decision. I hope it’s the right one.
Michael J. Casey studied film at the University of Northern Colorado and has continued to study it with a voracity that some might consider unhealthy. He bounces back and forth between Los Angeles, CA and Denver, CO where he watches an inordinate amount of movies and occasionally writes about them.