Combustible Celluloid
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With: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Dayo Okeniyi, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler, Andre Royo, Bob Odenkirk, Kaitlyn Dever, Masam Holden, Gary Weeks, Whitney Goin, Nicci Faires
Written by: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, based on a novel by Tim Tharp
Directed by: James Ponsoldt
MPAA Rating: R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality - all involving teens
Running Time: 95
Date: 08/02/2013

The Spectacular Now (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Flask Full of Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It seems like just a few months ago I was admiring James Ponsoldt's alcoholism drama Smashed, and now here he is again with The Spectacular Now, one of the very best movies of the summer.

Based on a novel by Tim Tharp, the movie looks like any number of party-time high school movies, but burrows much deeper into its characters and situations, leaving a satisfyingly complex portrait of a guy you might actually know.

Every high school -- or at least every high school movie -- has a character like Sutter Keely (Miles Teller). He radiates confidence and humor and seems to enjoy his place in the world. He gets along with everybody and doesn't take anything too seriously.

On the underside of this, Sutter lacks the ability to truly connect with other human beings; he can sweet-talk them, but he can't open himself up. Instead, he likes to drink, and has even taken to keeping a flask on his person at all times.

After a particularly raucous night, he winds up passed out on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a shy, bookish girl who likes sci-fi and goes to school with Sutter. She knows who he is, but he only barely recognizes her.

He begins working his charms on her, enjoying his moments with her, but little planning on anything. Of course she becomes hooked. But Sutter still thinks about his ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), and she thinks about him. She has a new boyfriend, who is more serious, but not as much fun as Sutter was.

Though the writing -- by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (both of (500) Days of Summer) -- is excellent, the movie does not deepen its characters through dialogue. Instead, the movie shows us who they are by how they behave in various situations and interactions.

For example, Sutter has a run-in with Cassidy's new boyfriend, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), and we witness as Sutter diffuses a potentially violent situation with his charm. Yet as Marcus leaves, his parting words unwittingly knock down Sutter a peg or two.

Sutter likewise handles a terrific scene with his boss with surprising honesty. Only when he meets his estranged father (Kyle Chandler) for the first time does he seem to have met his match.

Much of the movie is focused on Sutter's drinking and a related accident, though, like Smashed, this is not a preachy, disease-of-the-week movie. The result of the accident will have many viewers angry about the strength and depth of the Aimee character, as it did during the screening I attended.

However, I would assert that Aimee is not a weakly conceived character, but rather a strong conception of a weak character. When we first meet Aimee, she gets up extra early in the morning to take on her mother's paper route, since her mother is generally irresponsible about such things. Sutter questions Aimee about this, and her response is merely, "it's OK. I don't mind." I know people like this, and the movie's portrayal of her is spot on.

There are many more good and memorable scenes, but I also want to mention Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter's mom. She is excellent again, as she always has been in her extraordinary and unsung career. And Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who was the heart and soul of Smashed, is very powerful in her few scenes as Sutter's sister.

Woodley, who came a hair's breadth away from a deserved Oscar nomination for The Descendants, proves that she has more depth and understanding than most other actresses her age, but it's Teller who is the movie's real find.

I had seen him very recently in two dumb all-night party movies, Project X and 21 and Over, and I had forgotten that he was the kid in Rabbit Hole. He truly surprised me in The Spectacular Now with an incredibly intuitive, soulful performance. He really gets the nuts and bolts of Sutter. He pulls off a deep and mature performance, perhaps one of the year's best.

It's no secret that the movie industry mainly markets and sells its wares to young people, but it's a shame that so few movies actually treat them as human beings. The Spectacular Now is one of the good ones.

Lionsgate released a very fine Blu-ray edition, and though it's not an eye-poppingly visual film, the presentation here is excellent. It comes with a commentary track by director Ponsoldt, who seems a bit more low-key than he was when I met him. There's also a short collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and about 20 minutes of deleted scenes, plus trailers for this and other Lionsgate releases.

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