Judge Clark Douglas lives in the tolerable now.
From the writers of (500) Days of Summer.
"If I was your father, this is where I might give you a lecture or something, you know, about what you're doing to yourself."
Facts of the Case
Sutter (Miles Teller, Footloose) is a popular kid at his high school. He's in a relationship with the attractive, fun-loving Cassidy (Brie Larson, United States of Tara) and the two spend much of their time together drinking and partying. When the relationship falls apart, Sutter unexpectedly finds himself growing close to a mild-mannered "good girl" named Aimee (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants). The relationship seems to have a positive effect on him, but it also inspires him to turn increasingly introspective about what's missing in his life. Soon, he begins a search for his long-lost father (Kyle Chandler, Super 8) and is confronted with some valuable lessons about what's really important in life.
Alcoholism has been the common theme in the work of director James Ponsoldt, who first tackled the subject in the 2006 feature Off the Black and then examined it in even more memorable fashion with the 2012 flick Smashed. In some ways, The Spectacular Now arguably places a greater emphasis on its relationship drama elements than on drinking, but alcoholism still lurks in the background and ultimately proves a larger theme than it seems at a glance. It's treated in semi-nostalgic fashion early on, as scenes featuring a host of red solo cups may stir up memories of Teller's hard-partying roles in 21 and Over and Project X. The nostalgia is confronted later, as Sutter's father reveals himself to be a man trapped in alcoholism's unyielding grip. Sutter's dad isn't the sort of drunk who's constantly staggering around and embarrassing himself, but he's enough of a slave to drinking that he's willing it to let it interfere with life's most important moments.
In some ways, it's heartening to see a modern teen drama taking these things so seriously—so many films have simply accepted that self-destructive behavior is just a part of life for modern high-schoolers and shrug such things off as an ordinary part of growing up. Even so, it's also a little disappointing to see a film that initially seems like an exceptionally compelling relationship drama occasionally set its strongest elements to the side in favor of AA-style sermonizing. It doesn't want to turn into a full-blown drinking drama ala Crazy Heart or Flight, but those elements play too significant a role for it to feel like anything else. In that regard, it's a Trojan horse of a movie.
Even so, there's plenty here that is well worth checking out even if you aren't interesting in the film's preachier elements. I haven't been particularly interested in Miles Teller as an actor until now, as the film employs his easygoing frat boy charm effectively (he often reminded me of a young Vince Vaughn) and then proceeds to deconstruct it. Even better is Shailene Woodley, who plays her wallflower of a character with such grace and tenderness. The film's final shot is a close-up of Woodley's face, and the number of emotions she quietly projects over the course of just a few seconds is astonishing. Alison Brie, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler (in one of the few roles that allows him to feel like someone other than Coach Taylor) and Jennifer Jason Leigh stand out in smaller supporting turns, but Sutter and Woodley are required to carry the bulk of the film. Sutter's journey towards coming to terms with his alcoholism is engaging enough, but the movie springs to life when its two leads are sharing the screen.
The Spectacular Now (Blu-ray) has received a fine 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that spotlights the film's attractive cinematography. Shot in my home state of Georgia, the film employs its locations more effectively than the average relationship drama, allowing the rural areas in which much of the film takes place to feel alive. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is strong, too, employing a solid mix of pop/rock/hip-hop songs and understated original score material to fine effect. Sound design is exceptional throughout, and dialogue is clean and clear. Supplements are pretty standard: an audio commentary with Ponsoldt, a making-of featurette, twenty minutes of deleted scenes (which surely accounts for the film's appreciably fast-paced 95-minute running time) and a digital copy.
The Spectacular Now may ultimately fall a bit short of its potential and may have received slightly more critical acclaim than it really deserves, but the film is still a superbly-acted drama that deserves an hour and a half of your time. Recommended.
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