When a filmmaker brings you into overly familiar territory, he has to work exceptionally hard to convince audiences he has anything new to say. In “The Spectacular Now,” James Ponsoldt confronts that dilemma when he offers up a high-school coming-of-age comic drama.
Not exactly new, right?
It begins when a high school senior is lackadaisically filling out a college application. Then he gets dumped by his hot girlfriend, gets drunk and meets the film’s wallflower heroine. She is in her school’s French club and can’t imagine having a boyfriend. Hey, he soon realizes, she’s actually kinda cool.
Oy! Been there, isn’t that done yet? But wait — not so fast.
Ponsoldt’s goals come into focus in a calm steady pace. There’s a dark side to these coming-of-age stories that American movies rarely investigate since the focus usually is on comic hijinks, getting drunk, getting laid and getting out of town.
Funnily enough, those things do happen, in a manner of speaking, only the film views these developments with refreshing wisdom and candor. Ponsoldt and his writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, in developing Tom Tharp’s novel, slowly turn everything expected on its head to see what falls out.
Ultimately, it’s not a pretty sight. Which probably means that the young crowd such movies normally attract will stay away in droves.
It’s not that they’ll feel like they’re being lectured to; it’s more a case of seeing on screen an aspect of many of their lives that’s easier to ignore — that sinking feeling the future is breathing down on you and you haven’t really gotten around to making plans.
The screenwriters are the team responsible for “(500) Days of Summer,” a playful rom-com that through its unusual narrative structure and imaginative characters was able to throw splashes of comic light into many dark areas of young people’s romantic relationships. In this film, they operate in a much different mode.
Miles Teller, who made his feature debut opposite Nicole Kidman in the tragic family drama “Rabbit Hole” and delivered an impressive supporting performance in “21 and Over,” takes on his first lead role as Sutter Keely, a young man wavering — drunkenly — on the precipice of adulthood.
Unlike most formulaic teen tales, “The Spectacular Now” doesn’t feel a need to immediately identity his “problem.” At first glance, Sutter is just a goofy, upbeat guy who’s the life of every party among fellow schoolmates in an unnamed small American town.
His exuberance makes him something of a chick magnet but he doesn’t lord this over his buddies. In fact, he tries to help one buddy get his own girl, which leads to a misunderstanding which leads to his girlfriend (Brie Larson, looking so much different than her role in “Short Term 12”) dumping him on the eve of graduation.
He wakes up after a night of hard partying on the front lawn of Aimee Finckley (Shailene Woodley who played George Clooney’s teenage daughter in “The Descendants”). He has no idea how he got there. No doubt there’s another movie in that.
Anyway Aimee goes to the same school but Sutter has never noticed her. They move in different worlds, you see.
She’s into science-fiction, prepping for university and getting out from under the thumb of her nettlesome (and unseen) mom. He’s into parties — a flask of whiskey never far from his reach — living in the moment and getting out from under the thumb of his nettlesome mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Hey, they’ve got one thing in common at least, right?
In trying to the “help” Aimee get out of her shell, or at least the one he thinks she’s in, he starts to fall in love. This is no doubt the first time he’s taken a girl seriously enough to really get to know her and appreciate her hidden qualities.
Aimee in turn encourages Sutter to look up a dad who disappeared so long ago from his life. His mom and big sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) have effectively dissuaded him from ever bothering about dad to this point.
At first reluctantly and then with increasing passion, he takes up that challenge. The two even drive the three hours it takes to get to another small town where his dad holes up.
Here the film’s focus sharpens a good deal. His father (Kyle Chander), a handsome but rudderless man, is clearly the model for Sutter a few years down the road —an aimless barfly absorbed in his own version of living in the moment.
Which is another way of saying living without a future.
Like many aspects of this movie, the film telegraphs this point perhaps too obviously. Even the fact the son has never really searched for his nearby dad all those years feels a little forced.
But in other areas the film is more subtle. There’s a scene for instance in which the new beau (Dayo Okeniyi) of Sutter’s ex-girlfriend drops by the clothing store where Sutter works for a confrontation that turns into a consultation.
Despite being a top student and star athlete, the boyfriend wants to understand how he can be cool like Sutter. On leaving he thanks Sutter by telling Sutter he is not at all like what other students think he is — a “joke.”
It slips by just like that but there, without any further commentary, is a harsh truth Sutter has never acknowledged: That his clowning is not going to play well once high school is over. Especially if he doesn’t go to college. He’ll just be another town drunk.
After the reunion with dad, the film starts to fall apart. Not only is the wind-up all too conventional and convenient but it’s marred by a surprising lapse on the filmmaker’s part.
An accident occurs that seemingly gives the story a tragic turn but suddenly, without sufficient explanation, there’s no tragedy after all and everyone is just fine. This adds a jarring note to the already humdrum ending.
But much that has gone before is worth celebrating. Previously Ponsoldt made the Sundance prize-winning “Smashed,” another anti-alcohol diatribe which means the director’s in a bit of a rut himself.
But in this outing Ponsoldt is cagier about how he handles scenes of alcohol abuse, showing how subtely it can creep up on a young person and how much fun comes from the liberating liquor before it takes its revenge.
Teller convincingly portrays a teen trying to escape his demons by playing a role, playing to his strengths in interpersonal relationships and ignoring the tough parts of life. He’s largely even fooled himself.
Woodley is a revelation as a young woman who embraces her new self that this boyfriend has uncovered. She blossoms in the relationship and grows not only to care for the young man but to see potential in him that he himself does not see.
In smaller roles, Jason Leigh and Chandler deliver effective blueprints for what some students may become in life if they peak in high school.
Andre Royo has several good scene as a math teacher frustrated with Sutter’s lack of concentration on essentials. Likewise you may barely notice Bob Odenkirk as Sutter’s boss but he too brings depth to an underwritten part that works to highlight the protagonist’s plight.
“The Spectacular Now” is not spectacular but it is an unusually deep coming-of-age story about characters who resemble people you’ve known in life rather than encountered in other movies.
Opens: August 2, 2013 (A24)
Production: Andrew Lauren Productions, 21 Laps Entertainment, Global Produce Productions
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk, Kaitlyn Dever, Andre Royo, Masam Holden, Dayo Okeniyi
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Based on the novel by: Tim Tharp
Producers: Tom McNulty, Shawn Levy, Andrew Lauren, Michelle Krumm Executive producers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, Marc Shmuger
Director of photography: Jess Hall
Production designer: Linda Sena
Music: Rob Simonsen
Costume designer: Peggy Stamper
Editor: Darrin Navarro
R rating, 95 minutes