Live in the moment. In itself, this adage is positive and helpful, but can it go too far? Can people invest themselves so much in the present that it becomes a detriment to their future? This is the question raised by James Ponsoldt’s (Smashed) brilliant love story film, The Spectacular Now. Hit the jump to read my Blu-ray review of the movie.
The film opens with the extroverted Sutter (Miles Teller) attempting to crank out a college application essay before getting distracted. Sutter has always been the life of the party. His charismatic ebullience helps him to charm those around him: his friends, his girlfriend, and his employer, played by Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad), all the while barely concealing his alcoholism. However, an unexpected breakup leaves him hurt and confused. After an intense bender, he wakes up confused on the lawn of his reserved and insecure classmate Aimee, played by the exceptional Shailene Woodley (The Descendants). Aimee gives him a ride to find his car, and their friendship and romance begins to blossom.
The brilliance of The Spectacular Now is that it works with a number of clichéd ideas – an unlikely romance, high school love, common character archetypes, and a message that living for the moment isn’t everything – yet it gracefully manages to make the film feel fresh and new. While a film with an unlikely romance premise like A Walk To Remember might succumb to indulgent sappiness, The Spectacular Now remains primarily focused on its characters, particularly Teller’s. Woodley has been good in every one of her roles since The Descendants, but it is the charismatic Teller who steals the show with his performance. The two complement one another, but Teller shines, showing great emotional depth as a young, unfocused alcoholic in denial. Sutter’s troubles stem from his Mother’s hinted criticism that he is just like his Father, who left home when Sutter was still young. It is only through finally witnessing firsthand who his Father (Kyle Chandler) really is that Sutter is able to catch a glimpse of who he will become if he does not change his ways. Once again, while that segment could very easily make a film too didactic, Ponsoldt avoids this carefully by keeping the events understated and nuanced.
Perhaps part of the original magic of this film is that Sutter’s healing does not take place merely through romantic love. Aimee offers the gentle, loving support that his character needs to grow, but it is a moving reconciliatory encounter with his mother in the film’s third act that helps him most. Furthermore, the final scene between him and Odenkirk’s character reveal that his employer has served as something of a father figure to him as well.
The revelation that he is different from his Father is what helps Sutter to break out of his fatalistic mindset, at least enough for [SPOILER ALERT] a Good Will Hunting-esque ending, where he pursues the girl whom he hurt. The film’s loose ends are tied at the conclusion, but not excessively. Sutter realizes that, even though it is good to live in the present, building a future helps to ensure that there is a present to live in. From Nebraska to Before Midnight to Spike Jonze’s exceptionally innovative Her, 2013 has been a powerhouse year for profound films on human relationships. Although The Spectacular Now is perhaps a bit more understated than these films, I think that it is an excellent film that can stand alongside them. Never preaching, it shows how the errors of living too much in the present and thinking fatalistically can be countered by authentic love and support. Although it deals with a younger age that is often dumbed down in Hollywood, this film helps keep its characters grounded in reality. It shows that the people we really love are the ones who support us and help us to grow in the right ways. The Spectacular Now was one of the strongest films in a year of standout films, and I look forward to Ponsoldt’s future directorial efforts, as I also look forward to future roles from Teller and Woodley.
The Lionsgate Blu-ray copy of the film is shot in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1), and the Blu-ray includes a digital copy. Visually, the movie is stunning in widescreen, and Ponsoldt has created a large and beautiful world through this format. The special features include an audio commentary with Ponsoldt, a 4-part featurette of the film’s making titled “Then to Now: Making The Spectacular Now,” and Deleted Scenes. The commentary is insightful. The featurette is concise and fascinating, with great insights from the director, producers, and stars of the film on the film’s look and feel. I do not always enjoy these kinds of special features, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The Deleted Scenes were also very interesting, seeing as they had to cut out about 30 minutes of material to make the film’s final cut. Some of the Deleted Scenes are too preachy or overt to the characters, some don’t seem like a fit, and there are some – namely one with Odenkirk – that I wish were in the film. For the most part though, they were wisely removed from the film, but a viewing of them gives more insight into the film’s original script.