Cinematic cliches, cinematic truths
James Ponsoldt's portrait of 21st-century American teenagers may be cringeworthy, but only for cutting too close to the occasionally-hokey reality of young love.
If young people in America could vote on a credo, the phrase “live in the now” would almost certainly be among the top candidates. You hear it everywhere. And so when I learned I was going to see a film about teenagers called The Spectacular Now at the Downer Theatre last Thursday, I braced myself for yet another yolo-centric exaltation of how Fun. it is to be young and make bad decisions.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a popular and charismatic high school senior. He has a job at a men’s fashion store, a car and a personal philosophy. He “lives in the now” as he says, and with no plans for college and advanced drinking problem, seems to very much to embody the ideal.
All this changes when after a night of heavy boozing, Sutter passes out on the lawn of Amy Finecky (Shailene Woodley), another high school senior. Amy is cut from a different social fabric than Sutter. She participates in French Club, reads graphic novels and is pretty much the closest thing to a 21st century Molly Ringwald. Sutter helps Amy with her paper route; she helps him with his geometry homework. Soon thereafter, they’re a bona fide couple, eating lunch in the cafeteria, attending prom and awkwardly navigating their way through the standard coming of age rites of passage (e.g. sex, family lives, the Future). With Sutter’s encouragement, Amy applies and is accepted to college, and with her mind toward the future, asks Sutter to come with her. Sutter, content with himself and his surroundings, avoids the subject until a trip to visit his estranged, alcoholic father forces Sutter to very directly confront his future.
If all this sounds a tad heavyhanded, it’s because it is. The Spectacular Now is a film about young love, which by definition something extreme and irrational. There were moments throughout the film where the character’s hokiness physically made me cringe, not because of the hokiness itself, but because that hokiness was so familiar. I was a very melodramatic teenager.
Another thing worth mentioning is the remarkable way Ponsoldt chooses to visualize his characters. Not only do both Woodley and Teller act like teenagers, they also look like teenagers. Actual teenagers. They have acne, even. It makes you think about how much goes into glamorizing the faces we see on television everyday.
Fittingly, for a film whose realism depends so heavily on resisting the spectacular, The Spectacular Now concludes in the most mundane way possible: a college admissions essay asking Sutter to describe his biggest challenge in life. His answer, that his biggest challenge is himself, is, like the answers of so many other high school seniors, myself included, cliche. It is also true. The Spectacular Now is much the same.
The Spectacular Now is currently screening at the Oriental Theatre.