Review: The Spectacular Now (2013)
Coming of age films often hammer home the point that growing up is tough and when they’re done well, we happily go along with the melodrama, accept the protagonists’ mistakes and laugh off the mishaps. With Miles Teller's character, Sutter, his resistance to move on from school and into adulthood causes more damage than is acceptable and the effects of his steady self sabotage teeter on the edge of being inexcusable, especially when it comes to how he treats those around him. It makes a charming character who is much in need of attention hard to love, even if he is first introduced as a happy-go-lucky sort of chap.
The first half of The Spectacular Now focuses on a teen romance between Sutter and Aimee (Shailene Woodley), but when it moves beyond this into a soul-searching family narrative, the reasoning for Sutter’s behaviour becomes clearer. His issues are rooted in his childhood and the immense impact that his father leaving had on him. This damage manifests as alcoholism, which gets worse as the film goes on. Oddly, it’s not picked up on by the other characters with the exception of his boss (Bob Odenkirk) who asks him not to come into work ‘loaded’. And we're not talking about a few drinks from a keg at a party, or tainting the punch bowl at prom here, but a constant reliance on alcohol through the day and night - he gets out his hip flask at any opportunity.
Sutter moves between a character who is relatable (and somewhat textbook when it comes to teenagers in film) - he doesn’t know how to write his college application, is failing Geometry, can’t decide what to do with his life - to someone that we begin to dislike and even pity. As the storytelling shifts from his obnoxious ‘live in the now’ way of living, to a wider perspective of who Sutter is once we see him interact with different people (his mum, teachers, boss, ex-girlfriend), it’s revealed that he is oblivious to the growing chasm between how he perceives himself and how others see him. To his peers and teachers, he’s just a bit of a joker.
Shailene Woodley puts in a wonderful, effortless performance as a placeholder girlfriend, though we’re never really sure if Sutter genuinely likes her or if she was always just a girl to fill the void of Cassidy (Brie Larson). It’s completely unfair on Aimee, who has her own family problems (these, sadly, are never explored) and besides which, she seems far too intelligent to be getting involved with a spiralling addict with no ambition. Nevertheless, her sweetness brings out a nicer side to him and she gently pushes him to confront some of the pieces of his life which he has been avoiding for so long. We may question the sincerity of the relationship and it often feels one-sided, but it the romantic shots of Aimee and Sutter together (see below) on the day of their prom are truly stunning.
Although The Spectacular Now does offer a relatively fresh take on the teen genre, this film isn't without its issues. One being that the screenplay offers a very forgiving perspective on a young man who treats a girl badly and drink drives without a second thought. We understand that he is punishing himself and is acting out for fear of becoming like his father, but the lack of a fair comeuppance is concerning. Second, the cast is grossly underused! With Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, Bob Odenkirk and Jennifer Jason Lee all in minor roles with very few lines and no character development, it feels like a huge waste of talent.
What The Spectacular Now does well is highlight the downsides of the carpe diem mindset. It brings to life the fear that we all experience when the need to grow up creeps up on you far too quickly. Despite all of Sutter's misgivings, Miles Teller succeeds in portraying a charming optimist who self destructs in his desperate struggle to evade the looming realities of adulthood. Countering youthful hope with addiction and the mistreatment of the women in his life makes for a complex character but it's a great shame that Aimee couldn't be written with the same consideration.
Verdict: Takes the familiar story of a character who is reluctant to move on and face the real world to another level. Shailene Woodley's character Aimee deserved better than to be collateral damage.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡