Saturday, September 28, 2013

THE SPECTACULAR NOW Presents Raw Look at Teenage Wasteland


- There have been a number of good coming-of-age movies so far this year, but THE SPECTACULAR NOW is one more worth checking out. Featuring two break-out lead performances, from teen stars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, this is a film that deftly mixes comedy and tragedy and romance into one intoxicating blend. At times, the movie devolves into standard-issue soapiness. But what separates it from the pack is an aesthetic that's largely subtle, raw, and much more affecting that your average teen movie.

The film is, mostly, about the unlikely romance between Sutter (Teller) and Aimee (Woodley). Sutter is a unique sort of popular kid - not the usual jock or prep, but a smooth operator who gets by on his charm, outgoing nature, and charisma. He's like Boy Meets World's Cory Matthews with a dash of Elvis Presley. When we first meet Sutter, he's recently broken up with his girlfriend / object of infatuation Cassidy (Brie Larson, who is having a hell of a year), and still hung up on her. So when Sutter first meets geeky wallflower Aimee, his goal isn't so much to date her as it is to help boost her confidence a bit, in exchange for some tutoring. The thing is that behind Sutter's laid-back exterior are some real issues. A broken home has led Sutter to develop a serious drinking habit and some serious daddy issues. Meanwhile, Aimee has some issues of her own - not least of which is her growing attachment to Sutter.

As romance blossoms between the two, there is a very authentic-feeling courtship that goes on, that's got a lot more nuance than you typically get in this sort of movie. And what makes it work is that this isn't just about the boy-meets-girl story. Once they're together, Sutter and Aimee are forced to confront each others' deep-seated issues and fears, as each tries to help the other overcome and get past that which is holding them back.

Like I said, this is a star-making turn for Miles Teller. He makes Sutter feel less like a contrived teen movie character and more like someone you might actually have known or been friends with in high school. The movie never boxes him in or forces the character to be a cardboard cut-out, and with that sort of freedom, Teller thrives. Now, the easy criticism of the movie could have been that Aimee is just the stereotypical "dorky girl who takes off her glasses and is revealed to have been cute all along." But I think Woodley does a fantastic job here of making Aimee believably individualistic and, again, not a cardboard cutout. She's not a stereotypical geek, but rather an introverted girl who clearly undervalues herself. You can't help but root for her and Sutter - you can't help but cheer as he forces her out of her shell, and she gives him the courage to track down his absentee dad.

Eventually, Sutter's long-lost dad enters the picture - played by Kyle Chandler - and Chandler is in fine form, and really brings a strong dramatic element to the film. There are also strong supporting cast turns from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter's older sister, and from Bob Odenkirk as his boss, at the men's clothing store where Sutter has a part-time gig. But it's Woodley and Teller who power the movie's engine.

What prevents the film from reaching greatness is its overly-contrived third act. What had been a more grounded, naturalistic movie takes a turn for the melodramatic, and the film begins to take on an unintentionally campy tone. The film goes on for too long, and misses a chance to end things on a high note. Instead, the actual ending feels tacked-on and unearned, and cheesy to boot. The movie's descent into hokey-ness by no means ruins it, but it left me feeling like a film that didn't quite live up to its initial promise.

Overall though, THE SPECTACULAR NOW is a really well-done film that, for the most part, does a great job of being more than typical teen fare. The direction, tone, and rawness of the film contributes, but I chalk up a lot of the film's success to its bright young stars.

My Grade: B+

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