SXSW REVIEW: THE SPECTACULAR NOW

By March 14, 2013Press

I heart Shailene Woodley so much in this movie!

The Spectacular Now was the biggest movie I missed at Sundance. It was a hard ticket to get and any press screenings conflicted with my interviews or, you know, going home. I had a good feeling it would play at SXSW for me to get a second chance, or maybe I just used “The Secret” to manifest it on the SXSW schedule all by myself. If so, you’re welcome, Austin.

Sutter (Miles Teller) is a bit of an aimless loser, coasting through school with D’s and no plans for college or the future. He’s the cool kid, or at least well-liked if not star quarterback and prom king. He’s just been dumped by Cassidy (Brie Larson) but he feels like he’ll be okay.

So I guess Miles Teller will be the latest guy playing aimless losers who learn to get their life together in movies over the next few years. At least in Spectacular Now he’s using his powers for good and not evil (see my review of 21 and Over). After one drunken blackout, he meets Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) and she’s a good influence on him.

Passing reference is made that Aimee may be considered an outcast of the school, but they don’t make a big deal out of it. It seems more like Sutter’s friends find it out of character for him to be interested in her. Aimee likes manga which is about the geekiest thing that’s ever specified, but she’s also extremely responsible with money, working a job and taking care of her family. Switch out manga for movies and she’s my dream girl.

I heart Shailene Woodley so much in this movie. Aimee is so sweet, and Woodley is not making a show of it. She’s just natural. There were no girls like that in my high school, which leads me to suspect The Spectacular Now is the best science-fiction movie of the year. A scene where Sutter teaches Aimee to say MF is a genuinely delightful character moment.

Sutter is a teen alcoholic and they do drink a lot. He’s more of a bad influence on Aimee, giving her a flask so they can both whip it out whenever they lose their buzz. Luckily Aimee is so responsible that she can handle it. She’s just learning to come out of her shell a little and experiment the way high school and college kids are supposed to. The firsts that Aimee experiences with Sutter are the high watermark that any parents should hope their kids partake in while developing responsible relationships.

The really profound theme of The Spectacular Now is that Sutter is a kid who doesn’t know how to receive love. Okay, that’s a hard tag line to put on a romantic dramedy for kids that will be rated R for language and drinking, but it’s far more poignant than “be yourself, don’t change for the cool kids.” Alcohol is in his genes and he’s grown up creating defense mechanisms to cope with abandonment. He can pep himself up and socialize well but when someone actually loves him, it’s not just awkward, it’s threatening. That’s a powerful dilemma for an adult to face, let alone a high school kid.

Almost as important to the success of The Spectacular Now are all the things it is not. It is not high school clichés or rom-com clichés. It’s hard to identify a movie by what it’s not but it’s not the teenage alcoholic afterschool special. It’s not the nerd makeover or nerd revenge movie. Sutter still looks at Cassidy but looking at your ex is a real thing. There’s no contrived 3rd act misunderstanding that ultimately brings Sutter and Aimee closer. Actually, working out Sutter’s issues is far more traumatic than that, and it’s well earned.

So now I know what the big deal is about The Spectacular Now, or Spec Now as the Sundance crowd was already calling it. It’s got breakout performances from some rising stars, which was probably the industry scuttlebutt. For the film lovers though, it’s a sensitive story with no easy answers but a damned worthwhile set of questions.

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