THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER – As they did in his 2012 Sundance hit Smashed, the perils of alcoholism loom large in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, a sincere, refreshingly unaffected look at teenagers and their attitudes about the future. Wonderfully acted by the kids and adults and smartly adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel by the (500) Days of Summer team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber with a studious avoidance of hipster posturing, this fundamentally serious film poses a commercial challenge by the way it not so much falls between two stools as it embraces both adolescent and grown-up perspectives. The right distributor would be the one that could miraculously attract both audience segments, however fanciful that dream might be.
It says a lot for the depth of the writing and the characterization to acknowledge that it takes the entire film to fully get a handle on Sutter Keely. Ineffably played with a genial, easy-going charm by Miles Teller (Project X, Footloose), this high school senior has a devil-may-care, no-problem attitude that more than compensates for his lack of classic good looks and attracts guys and girls like the sun; even the most impressive kid in school, the black star athlete and class president, envies his smooth skills. Still, his line of b.s. has its limits, prompting his girlfriend to jump ship and him to get plastered.
But even as he awakens at 6 a.m. on the lawn of an unfamiliar home, Sutter’s got a ready line of patter for one of its occupants, classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a bright, industrious, innocent girl who’s into sci-fi and has never been part of the in-crowd or had a boy friend.
For Sutter, this perceived ugly duckling would be easy pickings but he soon comes to really like her and it’s a tribute to one aspect of his nature that he doesn’t take advantage of her naivete or eagerness until she’s good and ready. To her amazement, he asks her to the prom, but red lights flash when he gives her a present of a flask, something one may or may not have noticed he almost always carries with him.
No matter how beguiling the actors and dialogue may be, for a good little while the story’s incidents remain undeniably familiar, its concerns relatively ordinary; it’s kids’ stuff, nicely done. However, a dinner party at the opulent home of Sutter’s well-married older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the star of Smashed) raises the hitherto unmentioned spectre of their father, long-since disappeared.
Already, it has become clear that a major difference between Aimee and Sutter is that, whereas she likes to dream and plan for the future, he never thinks ahead or considers the consequences of anything. As she lost her father when she was young, Aimee insists that he look up his dad, something his beleaguered mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has always adamantly opposed.
But when Sutter and Aimee finally track the man down, it’s immediately apparent that Mom had very good reasons to keep her son away from him; Dad (Kyle Chandler) is a good-looking guy gone to seed, a barfly who, in the end, skips out on his son and sticks him with the tab for an afternoon’s worth of beer. He is, all too obviously, what Sutter will easily become unless he gets his act together.
This recognition depresses Sutter deeply, not least because he now knows he’s an alcoholic and not the right guy for Aimee. There is more drama in store but, ultimately, Mom has the final words of wisdom to impart to her troubled but big-hearted son.
Ordinary in some ways and extraordinary in others, The Spectacular Now benefits from an exceptional feel for its main characters on the parts of the director and lead actors. There is pleasure whenever Teller is onscreen, which is nearly always, and the young actor seems equally at home conveying Sutter’s conviviality as he later does his deep torment. Looking plain, even homely and singularly unadorned, Woodley is world away from the svelte little hottie she portrayed two years ago in The Descendents but again is entirely terrific.
By contrast, most of the other kids are more recognizably superficial and stereotyped. The adults, particularly Chandler as the jaw-droppingly irresponsible father, are uniformly excellent.
Shot in and around Ponsoldt’s base of Athens, Georgia, the film is small-scaled but looks solid.
I’ve added a handful of images of Shailene from various events taking place on day three of the Sundance Film Festival. I’ll hopefully be replacing these smaller images with much larger ones very soon. Enjoy the photos!
INDIEWIRE – Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is the charming, good time guy who lives in the moment. Self-assured, he’s the life of the party, popular and he and his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) breeze through their high school experience. Sutter and Cassidy are like a teenage power couple that rule parties thanks to their appeal and all the social lubricants at hand. But, writing an admission letter to the Dean of a university, Sutter reveals his life is at a crossroads. Thinking she’s caught up him with another girl, Cassidy has dumped him, when the truth is all Sutter was doing using his good time skills to help get his timid friend Ricky (Masam Holden) laid. But Cassidy isn’t having it and Sutter can’t see why this is the straw that broke the camel’s back with her.
So, Sutter is moving on, and getting ready to enter a new phase of his life: singledom. This means he boozes up, drives around and finds himself blacked out on a random front lawn, his car nowhere in sight. Serendipity strikes as he’s awoken at 6 AM by Aimee Finicky (“The Descendants” star Shailene Woodley), who’s doing the rounds on her paper route and finds the popular kid from high school passed out. The meet-cute extends to Sutter helping her drive around to do her paper route so he can also find his car.
Lonely and directionless, Sutter seems charmed by the unpopular (or invisible rather) Aimee who’s introverted and a little bit nerdy and soon she’s helping him out with his geometry homework and a relationship begins to blossom. Ricky doesn’t understand why of all the girls in school, Sutter is going after Aimee and wonders aloud if this rebound is going to break the impressionable girl’s heart. Sutter is sympathetic to the fact that she’s not a draw at school, but both share a bond in their rocky family lives. Sutter’s mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works at a hospital pulling night shifts and is hardly around. His dad (eventually revealed to be Kyle Chandler) has been absent since he was a child and his sister (“Smashed” star Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the well intentioned trophy wife of a lawyer, hasn’t worked a day since they married. Aimee’s mom is never seen, but its clear they’re not a wealthy family, and college might just be a pipe dream for her.
And so while Sutter and Aimee’s relationship blooms into something real and romantic, the 18-year-old still pines for Cassidy, and becomes jealous of Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), her new beau. And when things start getting serious with Aimee, he plays aloof. But once the relationship settles, Sutter takes Aimee on a three hour pilgrimage to visit his father and the teenager is in for a rude awakening. This meet up dovetails with a self-realization for Sutter: while beloved, no one takes him seriously. He is so intent on living in the now, that people can’t invest in his future. His fecklessness and boozing (a spiked 7-11 cup is never far from his hand), was a factor in Cassidy leaving him, and while Aimee wants Sutter to follow her to college in Philadelphia, he begins to realize that he may not be the best influence on her.
Much more meaty drama than teen comedy, director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) treats the story and characters with respect and seriousness almost to a fault. While not dour, “The Spectacular Now” can also be tremendously heavy. That’s not a bad thing, the picture is far more substantive than most teen relationship films, but it could probably use just a smidgeon of levity here and there after the first act.
Ponsoldt’s picture is self-possessed, mature and deeply patient, but it’s perhaps not at the exact pace some audiences are accustomed to. At 95 minutes, “The Spectacular Now” feels closer to two hours and that’s both to its benefit and minor detriment. Marked by long takes — one steady-cam shot is seven minutes long — Ponsoldt puts the emphasis on his actors and considering how good his cast is, it’s a smart move. Teller, who went toe-to-toe with Nicole Kidman in the criminally underrated “Rabbit Hole,” is effortlessly real in the movie. Woodley is terrific and painfully genuine and across the board, the entire cast (which also includes Andre Royo from “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” star Bob Odenkirk) imbues an authenticity that adds to the true-feeling greater whole.
Written by the guys who penned “(500) Days Of Summer”), the thematic element of alcohol (also present in Ponsoldt’s previous picture “Smashed”) is disconcerting, yet accurate storytelling. Clearly Sutter has a drinking problem like his father, but neither the script or the filmmakers attempt to round off the edges here and give the teenager any safe life lessons to learn from (though there is one small moment of self-recognition near the end). While the audience craves Sutter to find some resolution here, wrapping up all his problems would just be too clean and neat. This is more true to life, even if it’s harder pill to swallow. This kid is clearly a work in progress, who is only now just waking up to the world and himself, and figuring out who he truly is.
Don’t be surprised if the film is sold like “(500) Days Of Summer” (or a similar film) when it eventually makes its way to theaters, but this picture is particularly darker, sadder and pained. “The Spectacular Now” is wise beyond its years, charismatic, measured and authentic in its depiction of the pains, confusions and insecurities of the teenage experience, and while its deliberate rhythm may prove to be a harder sell among the teen crowd, it’s a valuable and honest film that’s worth the investment. [B]
THE WRAP – As day two of Sundance passed, plenty of films have picked up good buzz, but nothing has hit with the force that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” did on the second day last year.
Instead, festival-goers were left talking about the pleasures of the narrative films like the mountain-climbing adventure “The Summit” and documentaries like “After Tiller” and “The World According to Dick Cheney.”
“Austenland,” a comedy from Jerusha Hess (making her directorial debut after writing “Napoleon Dynamite”), certainly proved to be a crowd-pleaser at the Eccles Theatre in the early afternoon, with Keri Russell as a single woman so obsessed with the world of Jane Austen that she books an immersive vacation experience in the English resort that gives the film its title.
Jennifer Coolidge drew the biggest laughs as a blowsy American exploring the world with Russell, and the consensus among buyers seemed to be that the film will sell, but nobody’s in a rush to wrap it up. “We liked it,” one buyer for an indie-film company told TheWrap. “But I’m not going to buy it.”
James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” another film in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, attracted plenty of potential buyers to the screening – and enough who followed to the after-party to suggest that a deal will come.
Financed by Andrew Lauren and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the team responsible for “(500) Days of Summer,” the film itself is a high school movie with big issues on its mind, including alcoholism and substance abuse; co-star Mary Elizabeth Winstead isn’t the only thing it shares with Ponsoldt’s previous film, “Smashed.”
It is also, like “Smashed,” a character piece with marvelous central performances by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Both use the smallest of quirks and unexpected line readings to summon up the feeling of real teenagers, not characters.
To borrow and distort a phrase from Nirvana (whose surviving members played with all-star guests on Friday night to support Dave Grohl’s documentary “Sound City”), Ponsoldt’s movie feels like teen spirit.
With huge thanks once again to the lovely Nicole, I have added some adorable photos of Shailene at last night’s premiere of The Spectacular Now as well as some other events at the festival yesterday. Hopefully we’ll be seeing lots more of her at Sundance over the coming days.
COLLIDER – “Live in the moment” is a nice platitude and a crappy life philosophy. Vivacity is all well and good. We should appreciate the present, but we can’t live only for the present. We have to think about tomorrow because we’re probably going to be there. In his wonderful new film The Spectacular Now, director James Ponsoldt explore the live-for-the-moment mentality with an authentic and earnest look at high school emotions, anxiety about the future, and first love. Led by extraordinary performances from stars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now is a thoroughly charming and surprisingly powerful coming-of-age story about the fear of looking ahead and the seductive safety of living in the present.
Sutter Keely (Teller) is the life of the party. He knows everyone’s name and always has access to booze. After breaking up with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), Sutter drunkenly drives home only to awake on the front lawn of classmate Aimee Finicky (Woodley). Aimee is pretty, but shy and removed from the popular crowd. Sutter’s attempts at a rebound quickly turn into genuine feelings towards Aimee. Their relationship blossoms as they become drinking buddies, he gets her to come out of her shell, and she nudges him towards the introspection he’s thoroughly avoided.
Woodley wowed audiences in 2011’s The Descendants, and her work in The Spectacular Now is even better. No offense to her co-star, but it’s a bit more difficult to convince us that a girl as pretty as Aimee would be unpopular, but Ponsoldt doesn’t try to pull a She’s All That by saying that she’d be beautiful if only her hair wasn’t pulled back in a ponytail. He’s not trying to give Aimee a physical makeover because Woodley shows us that the character is beautiful on the inside. When she talks about her dream marriage at the dinner party of Sutter’s sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), we can’t help but fall in love with Aimee.
Woodley is fantastic, but the breakthrough turn comes from Teller. If The Spectacular Now becomes a hit, Teller becomes a star. He is funny, charismatic, and completely believable as a guy who is happy to pretend he’s one-dimensional because he doesn’t want to look beyond his narrow self-definition. When Sutter’s world starts being upended by honest emotions that force him to reevaluate his personality and his relationship with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler), Teller plays the drama with just as much power and passion as the comedy. Credit must once again be shared with Ponsoldt who skillfully transitions the movie from a big, bold comic first half to a thoughtful, heartfelt dramatic conclusion.
By investing in his characters and giving the actors room to flesh out their characters, Ponsoldt stops his movie from being a cautionary tale. Obviously, “living like there’s no tomorrow” isn’t a good life strategy, but it’s an understandable escape. It’s undoubtedly entertaining to watch Sutter flee from his responsibilities and neglect plans for life beyond high school. But The Spectacular Now never lets its protagonist off the hook. The movie doesn’t lecture and it doesn’t scold; it simply lets the present play out to an uncertain and ultimately more rewarding future.