58 – The Spectacular Now:
Ah, the good old coming-of-age story. Who doesn’t love one of those? Every generation seems to have one. 80s kids had Stand By Me, 90s had The Sandlot and for 2000s kids it was possibly Bridge To Terabithia. It might be just me, but I find that a coming-of-age movie is a good way to find the potential stars of tomorrow. After all, the protagonist is usually a child or teenager – and often played by an unknown. In the case of this movie, that was exactly the case. Both Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley rocketed to mainstream success shortly after this was released, due to both of them starring in the Divergent adaptations. A good coming-of-age story knows how to make an audience empathise with a teenager. The teen years are a dark part of all our lives – and once they’re over, we try our very best to forget them. But a story that can remind us of how hard it was to be a teenager is always a winner in my book.
Meet Sutter Keeley (Teller), a high school senior. Despite being an occasional drunken jackass, he seems to be a decent guy deep down. I mean, the first thing he does in the movie is set his shy best friend up with a potential girlfriend. Even when it’s at the cost of his own sweetheart.
Would you believe I actually typed that ‘stars of the future’ line before I remembered who was also in this movie? Brie Larson, 2016’s Best Actress winner. Up until the end of the prologue, she was Sutter’s girlfriend Cassidy. But given that she dumps him for only being in a car with another girl – the friend of the girl he was setting his friend up with – and has moved onto another guy called Marcus, he’s well shot of her to be honest. So he decides to drown his sorrows (which he will do a lot of in this movie) and drive around town looking for chicks. As this isn’t a 90s kids show with heavy-handed morals, he doesn’t die in a fiery car crash; he just passes out on someone’s lawn. But he has a good sight to wake up to.
Hello there, Shailene Woodley. Or since she’s apparently the ‘new’ Jennifer Lawrence, does that mean we should call her Shai-Wood now to match J-Law? If you’re familiar with her other film on my list – or else her breakout role in The Descendants – it might come as a shock to see her as a shyer character than usual. Shai-Wood plays Aimee Finicky – whose mother clearly wanted to inflict as much child abuse as possible by marrying someone with such a last name. Her mother’s inflicting plenty of other abuse too since she’s making her daughter get up at 5am to do a paper route that mommy’s supposed to be doing.
Sutter is feeling quite public-spirited for someone who’s brutally hung over and decides to help Aimee with her paper route. He also decides to ask her to lunch on Monday. Sometime later, we meet his mother, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. I have to wonder how Ms Leigh feels about starring in this film in hindsight – as producers lied to her agent that Julianne Moore really wanted the role and they’d give it to her if she didn’t get back to them within a day. Anyway, Sutter seems to be a bit tense with his mother, but what teenager isn’t?
Sutter hears back from his friend Ricky about how the date that cost him a future Oscar winner to set up went. It’s going pretty well so far, and Sutter doesn’t hold any ill-will against Ricky for the resulting implosion of his relationship with Cassidy. Ricky is curious about Sutter asking Aimee out. Sutter insists that he’s not interested in her. But rather, he feels that she’s too much of a pushover and he can help her out. The lunch date goes well, and Sutter asks Aimee if she’ll help him with his homework.
In the next sequence, we also discover that Sutter is behind on his schoolwork but he works a comfortable job in a men’s wear shop – also keeping a hip flask on hand to drink on duty. He goes over to Aimee’s house to study and gets a tour of her room. Aimee is quite a geek and has a few sci-fi themed drawings on her walls. And I swear to the blogging gods that there is nothing more adorable than Shailene Woodley describing the plot of one of Aimee’s mangas. It’s ten times more adorable than unicorn kittens singing Christmas carols.
The date gets cut short by Aimee’s parents arriving home, so Sutter invites her to a party. Afterwards he even stops by a comic book store to pick up the manga that Aimee showed him. While he’s reading, he gets some messages from his ex-girlfriend. Cassidy bumps into him at the party, and makes sure he sees her leaving with her new beau Marcus.
What follows is my favourite part of the film. Nothing sensational; just a cute scene where Sutter and Aimee discuss their families. Sutter claims his dad is an airline pilot who was kicked out of the house by his mother years ago. Aimee remarks that their mothers are remarkably similar – as she’s just been accepted to a university in Philadelphia but her mother isn’t likely to let her go. Sutter decides to teach Aimee to stand up for herself – which involves taking a swig from his hip flask and telling her mother to “get off my mother-fucking back”. Shailene Woodley clapping her hands over her mouth after she says “fuck” for the first time is even more adorable than describing her mangas. But if you’ve seen The Descendants, you’ll know that she’s well adept at cursing.
After hearing that Aimee doesn’t have any ex-boyfriends, Sutter goes in for a kiss. The movie fades to black and he wakes up with a horrible hangover. He’s hit by memories of asking Aimee to go to the prom with him. This prompts him to message Cassidy, who asks him to come over to hers. It soon becomes clear that they have very different viewpoints: Cassidy wants to think of the future, while Sutter just wants to live in the now. He’s perfectly content with his job, his car and of course his drinking.
Marcus actually comes to Sutter for advice on how to have fun with Cassidy. Judging from what she’s done so far in this movie, I’d suggest some emotional blackmail. Sutter meanwhile suggests relaxing and living in the now, stopping being so serious. He decides to take his own advice and ask Aimee to go to dinner at his sister’s. After a rather awkward dinner, Aimee gives Sutter an ‘out’ if he feels differently about going to the prom with her. Put it this way – the next scene has them doing it for the first time. I have to say that Shai-Wood seems to be the queen of losing her virginity on screen.
Bonus points for saying that this is the favourite scene she’s ever filmed. Afterwards, Sutter confesses that he was lying about his dad. He’s not seen him in forever, and his mother won’t allow him to see him. Aimee makes him a deal: she’ll stand up to her mother if he stands up to his. Cut to them getting ready for prom, where Sutter presents Aimee with the gift of a hip flask – her name engraved on it. The chemistry between Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller is especially killer in this scene.
At the prom, the two have fun and Sutter appears to be on amicable terms with Cassidy. Aimee reveals that she has a job set up for Philadelphia, and she suggests that Sutter come with her. He agrees, and the movie cuts to after Aimee has had it out with her mother. So her going to Philly is imminent. Sutter now has to follow through on his end of the bargain – but his mother refuses to let him call his dad. His sister proves more fruitful, and she reluctantly gives him both the number and the address. After he leaves, we see that she doesn’t look too pleased at what she’s done.
Sutter calls up his dad and arranges a meeting, though the phone conversation leaves one with a rather awkward feeling. Aimee tags along for the meeting. Daddy dearest actually does show, and he takes the kids to a bar. That’s meant to be danger sign number one, but if you live in Ireland – where kids are practically raised inside bars – the effect is slightly lost. During the bar scene, we see where Sutter gets his ‘live in the now’ attitude from. Dad also dispels the illusion Sutter’s been holding that he was kicked out of the house by his mother. Turns out he just wanted to leave because he wasn’t a family man.
Leave is exactly what he does next, hooking up with a booty call and leaving the kids to cover the bill. Apparently Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley improvised Sutter and Aimee trying to pool enough money together to pay – and the result is another subtly powerful moment in the film. It’s been hinting at this throughout the story, but the slow revelation that Sutter’s dad is an asshole is masterfully done. It’s helped by the fact that his actor, Kyle Chandler, is known for playing nice guys in most of his projects – so the twist is meant to hurt.
The following sequence of the kids waiting outside his apartment for him to come back – like he promised – only to find him back at the bar have an equal sting to them. Sutter finally gives up and drives home. He rejects Aimee’s attempts to comfort him, and she can tell that he’s trying to ruin their relationship. Is it because he thinks he’s no good for her, or that he’s just going to end up like his father? Well that’s rendered moot by the fact that Aimee steps out of the car to give Sutter some space and gets hit by a truck!
Aimee is fine and only has a broken arm. She also doesn’t hold any ill-will towards Sutter for what happened. Sutter seems to hold ill-will towards adulthood in general, as he tells his math teacher when he fails another test. And when the time comes from graduation, he tells both his parents the wrong day so they don’t come to the ceremony. Cassidy is there however and says she’s moving to California with Marcus. They part somewhat amicably, her calling him “my favourite ex-boyfriend.”
Things don’t seem to be going well for Sutter when his boss tells him that he may have to let him go from the job; business has been slow and he’ll have to let one employee go. Sutter can keep his job if he promises to never come to work drunk again. The kid replies that he can’t. And then there’s an exchange that will hurt.
Dan: “I suppose if I were your father, I’d have to give you a lecture about what you’re doing to yourself.”
Sutter: “No, Dan. If you were my father, you wouldn’t have to.”
This downward spiral of sadness comes to a conclusion when we see Aimee waiting at the bus stop for Sutter. He ignores her calls, and she sadly gets on the bus to Philadelphia on her own. Words can’t describe the feeling I had on the first watch – where I was literally yelling for Sutter to get there in time. Of course he doesn’t and he drowns his sorrows at a bar. And of course he ends up crashing the car – but at least it’s outside his own house this time. He also reveals to his mother that he finally visited his father. And it’s pretty much confirmed that yes, he is terrified that he’s just like him.
Mother proceeds to tell Sutter that on no account is he anything like his rotten deadbeat of a father. She tells the boy about all the wonderful things he’s done for people in the past – and it matches up with what we see in the film. Sutter went to a lot of effort to get his best friend a girlfriend, even at the cost of his own relationship. Rather than getting petty, he also gave Cassidy’s new boyfriend advice on how to deal with her. He took Aimee to a party and made sure she had fun, got to know people and felt included. He also ensured that she didn’t end up stuck doing her mother’s work and got to go to the university she wanted. Miles Teller proceeds to melt hearts as he balls into his mother’s arms.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve never not been afraid. Afraid of failure, of letting people down, hurting people, getting hurt. I thought if I kept my guard up and focused on other things and other people, then I wouldn’t even feel it. And nothing could hurt me. I screwed up. Not only did I shut out the pain. I shut out everything, the good and the bad. Until there was nothing. It’s fine to just live in the now, but the best thing about now is that there’s another one tomorrow. And I’m going to start making them count.”
Following that emotional epiphany, we see Sutter arriving in Philadelphia and bumping into Aimee. The movie ends completely open, with no indicator of how things will go. Miles Teller thinks that they had lunch but Aimee has matured too much to go back with him. Shailene Woodley meanwhile thinks that they do reconcile, even if it wouldn’t be too healthy. The facts however paint a far nastier picture.
It’s hard for me to describe just how well this film works. We saw a lot of movies about teenagers and teenage life popping up in the 90s. Usually they were about some nerd or geek ending up with a hottie they didn’t expect to notice them. Us 90s kids were practically told by those movies and TV shows that was what teen life was really like. Obviously now that we’re much older, we know better. But I feel as if The Spectacular Now is a teen film that plays out like something realistic. Maybe it’s down to the book it was adapted from, but I felt like I was almost watching a documentary. We had situations that felt realistic, and characters that felt like real teens. Slice of Life is a hard genre to get right. But when it’s done well, it’s excellent. And that’s what this film is. I felt as if I knew these people and I could connect with them – so therefore I was totally invested in their story. I begged Sutter to change his mind and meet Aimee at the bus stop. I couldn’t bear to see him yell at her in the car, because it felt like watching two friends fighting. And I felt my eyes getting a little teary when Sutter and his mother had that emotional little moment towards the end. Overall this film is a testament to what happens when everything comes together nicely – direction, acting, cinematography, writing – and the result is a film that’s lovely to look at. It truly is the spectacular now.
Get off my mother-fuckin’ back, grades!
*Story? Again, this is Slice of Life, so the story is that there is no story. You’re just put into Sutter’s life and follow him as he goes. But again, this is Slice of Life done well. B+
*Characters? Sutter and Aimee feel like realistic teens rather than stereotypes, as do the rest of the cast. A
*Performances? As great as Whiplash is, I feel as if this is Miles Teller’s best performance. He really embodies this kind of drunken frat boy character, and gives him a tremendous amount of depth. I could spend all day singing the praises of Shailene Woodley. Among the supporting cast, Kyle Chandler gives a low-key performance that manages to hurt you just a little. A+
*Visuals? A very pleasant film to look at, with some nicely lit and framed shots. Attention to subtler details, like the choice of clothes for Sutter and Aimee to reflect their contrasting personalities was a nice touch. The night-time scenes were especially nice to look at. B+
*Special Effects? N/A
*Anything Else? A good use of single-take shots and long takes help with the Slice of Life motif – making you feel like a fly on the wall. B
It’s time to take a trip to the world of fairy tales and romance, with Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust up next.