Hey everybody. Serious Film's Michael C here to take advantage of the late-Summer doldrums (Getaway, anybody?) as an excuse to draw attention to a terrific movie currently passing through theaters with insufficient critical fanfare.
The genre of high school romance is so moribund by cliché that most savvy film watchers probably feel like they could outline an entire film just from hearing the premise. If, for example, I were to tell you that The Spectacular Now begins with Miles Teller’s Sutter asking out a shy bookworm (Shailene Woodley) in an attempt to make the prettiest girl in school (Brie Larson) regret dumping him, you would probably contend, with understandable certainty, that the film would hold few surprises for you. [more...]
You would know that the Laws of Teen Movie Romance dictate that Larson’s character be a shallow villain who immediately replaces Teller with some total jerk, preferably a jock, and that Teller must treat his nerdy girlfriend rudely at first, but find himself falling for her against his better judgment. Eventually the ex will reappear to make a play for Teller at the most convenient time for Woodley to see them together and have her heart broken. She will run off crying while Sutter yells, “Wait! Let me explain!” and all will be set right with a grand romantic gesture, preferably on Prom Night - graduation day if the filmmakers are feeling wildly original. There is a better than even chance the ex-girlfriend will be pushed into a swimming pool.
It is my pleasure to report that James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now sidesteps all these tropes and more, achieving something deeper and altogether more affecting. The writers (500 Days of Summer’s team of Michel H Weber and Scott Neustadter) understand that the experience of one’s first serious love affair is far too messy to be contained by worn out Hollywood formula, or pretentious indie film formula, for that matter, which is just Hollywood formula dressed up in hipster clothes.
This absence of routine plotting frees up the movie to breathe and for extended sequences the characters break free of plot contrivances and we are absorbed in watching them test the limits of this first thrilling blush of love. The movie lives or dies by the chemistry of the leads and Woodley and Teller do outstanding work, crafting multi-dimensional characters, each with their own flaws and strengths. She is smart and kind, but naïve in romance, and too quick to allow her personality to be swallowed up by her extroverted boyfriend. He is positive to a fault but we realize he is covering up deep psychic scars, which manifest themselves in a nasty self-destructive streak.
Where most movie romances, teen or otherwise, are obsessed with the question of whether or not the couple will get together in the end, The Spectacular Now asks the wiser question of what lasting effect this relationship will have on the characters. Allowing another person to get so close has a way of teasing to the surface those issues we would rather not address. For all the heartbreak and drama that causes The Spectacular Now suggests that these two young people are changed for the positive because of the time they spent together, and I promise you, that realization is romantic in a way that trivializes the issue of who one dances with on prom night.
The Spectacular Now may skirt a bit close to After School Special territory here and there, and I didn’t care much for a late-in-the-film emergency wedged into to push the plot along, but by that point the film had earned a plot twist or two. I do not drop this compliment lightly when I say that the central romance recalls the power of Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. It’s a film I can imagine becoming a favorite of high school students because they see their own lives reflected in it. The rest of us will watch because we appreciate how rare it is to find a love story told with this much heart and honesty. B+