THE SPECTACULAR NOW. Starring Miles Teller, Shaileene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Directed by James Ponsoldt. 97 minutes. Rated M (mature themes, sex scenes and coarse language).
The opening of The Spectacular Now shows us the central character, Sutter (Miles Teller) at his computer, typing an essay on something that was hard and challenging in his life as part of his application for college. He recounts his exploits of the night before, with flashbacks indicating to the audience something of his character, his partying, his relationship with Cassidy (Brie Larsen) the glamorous blonde beauty of the class. He also starts to tell something of the truth about himself but deletes the letter.
As the film takes as into those high school parties, loud, dancing, drink… teenagers and young adults may get excited by this, while older audiences may slip back into their seats and wonder what they are going to be asked to endure. However, the film does improve both for its target audience as well as for those who may not be drawn into it immediately.
Sutter is 18, in the final year at school, not particularly interested in classes, full of wisecracks, considered something of a clown by others at the school. At this stage we are not sure that he has anything more to his character.
The Spectacular Now obviously means living to the full in the present, relishing it, glorying in it. At least, this seems to be the philosophy of Sutter. But Sutter, living in the now or in the immediate past, partying, drinking, trying to make an impression on his girlfriend, Cassidy, and generally failing.
As with so many films, all films really, we need to wait until the end to see how the situation develops and whether it resolves itself. This is particularly the case with The Spectacular Now.
The film is Sutter’s story. He lives with his mother, separated from her husband, working on night shifts in a hospital. This gives Sutter plenty of time to indulge himself, with Cassidy, with his best friend whom he is trying to set up with a girl, making wisecracks which he discovers later make him seem like a clown to his fellow-students. And he drinks, often and strongly, with his concealed flask. What is to happen to Sutter, especially as he deletes the application for college?
The main crisis of the film is Sutter, drunk, disappointed, driving home and crashing his car, and waking up at 6.00 am with a fellow-student looking down at him on her lawn. She is Aimee (an impressive performance from Shailene Woodley, a rather unprepossessing young woman, dominated by her mother, even to doing her mother’s paper delivery route. But, Sutter and Aimee unexpectedly click. She falls for him, he is comfortable in her company but does not see it as a loving relationship.
It is interesting to see the development in Sutter despite himself, becoming a more normal person, not just simply joking around, but really interested in keeping Aimee company. But he doesn’t stop drinking, actually enticing Aimee herself to start drinking.
He is challenged by a lecturer to improve his geometry studies, and he asks Aimee to tutor him. This gives them the opportunity to be together, for him to learn something about her (a love of reading graphic novels, for instance) and for him to be more himself.
He has never known his father and his mother will not give him address or phone number to make contact. He dares Aimee to stand up to her mother (using language she never would have dreamt she would use) and she dares him to find out about his father. Eventually he does and asks her to go with him, an experience that he has been looking forward to but which, inevitably, ends in disappointment and anger. And he also asks Aimee to go to the prom with him. He becomes a changed young man, even when, in times of retrenchment, his boss wants him to stay on with his part-time job, asking him to give up drinking; he is honest enough to say that he cannot.
There is a strong scene towards the end when he begins to talk honestly with his mother and she talks honestly with him, not reprimanding him, but pointing out all his good qualities which he covers with his low self-image.
The film is clearly a moral fable, especially about being one’s true and genuine self, not setting up a facade image, as well as in developing a sense of responsibility – and knowing that there can be a spectacular now another tomorrow, the next day, and…
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 5, 2013.