Director: James Ponsoldt
MPAA Rating: R
Film Pulse Score: 6/10
Coming of age films in American Cinema tend to lean towards the sweet and charming aspects of the intersection between teen dreams and adult reality and, for what it’s worth, we have grown very attached to the genre as a culture. A bit of darkness in otherwise bright impending futures is typically enough of a vehicle to carry an entire story forward, spanning the genre from Stand By Me to Garden State. To different degrees, the inevitable fallibility of leading characters in the genre help us to identify the Icarus experience in all of our lives; we can all identify that when someone is flying too high they are in danger of falling. Just a pinch of that awareness is all that is needed in The Spectacular Now.
In this particular moment, nothing is wrong for Sutter Keely (Miles Teller). For him, everything is as right as rain, and his charisma is able to win over the hearts of everyone he knows. The inherent darkness in life is exactly what 18 year old Sutter is an expert at avoiding. His onslaught of charm paired with a stupidly well timed cadence ensures that he can continue to skip along the surface of an issue or conflict without getting himself ensnared. It’s precisely this that he is revered for by family and classmates alike. A surefooted voice steeped in a causal sense of play is successfully delivered throughout the film by screen writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and they make it all look so easy. For a film that is almost entirely focused on playful banter and charismatic distraction, they have managed a great deal in writing a voice that consistently sounds fresh and off the cuff.
As for the issues, mainly alcoholism and being abandoned by your father, they tie into the entire structure of the film in some very nice ways. The obsession with the ‘now’ is only a distraction from these very things. Qualities that would be deflected in Sutter’s relationships can’t be avoided when he is confronted with the reality of his father, simply because it provides for such a strong mirror. A few overused devices seem to be the weakest links in the film, one in particular being the college essay question that bookends the film and shows us exactly where to enter and exit the film’s emotional landscape. While fairly common in studio comedies and romances of yester-year, this device goes a long way to flatten the story and cross genres with blockbuster films of lesser quality.
With an otherwise great script to work from, Teller’s performance as Sutter Keely is pitch perfect. You will want to adopt his character within the first 15 minutes of the film. Even if the film itself is not challenging, and the story is predictable, its the way the story is told that makes it a pleasure to watch. Teller’s job is to keep each moment in Sutter’s skin as lively as possible, and as honest as he can keep it. Supporting roles also go a long way to keep him afloat, as the contrast in any reality bearing character, be it his ex-girfriend, mother, boss (the list goes on and on), serves to keep Sutter’s character exactly where he needs to be. Each concern or conflict from another role is there to bounce off of the character of Sutter buoyantly, and it does not matter how the meandering exuberance of the teen stays afloat, as long as it does. Staying afloat is no problem for the audience either, there is enough amusement, emotion, and story to keep you engaged. However, let’s just say that ‘spectacular’ is a bit of an over-reach.