Based on the darkly comic novel of the same name, The Spectacular Now follows the exploits of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a charming, aimless high school senior who has no plans beyond his next slug of whiskey. As graduation looms, he meets and falls for Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), who has the potential to either rescue Sutter from his self-destructive ways or get dragged down with him. While anxious viewers wonder with increasing frustration why none of the onscreen adults intervene on behalf of these children, director James Ponsoldt lets the cameras roll on, letting nature take its course.
"A lot of images we see of young people in movies and television are simplistic morality tales," says Ponsoldt, who wrote and directed last year's tale of alcoholic love, Smashed. "I think it's a very fine line in a story like this. If you turn the dial a couple of notches to the left or right, you have a movie of the week."
For Ponsoldt, telling Sutter's story without wandering into "very special episode" territory required empathy for and acceptance of deeply flawed characters that are very similar to real-life teenagers, a perspective usually lacking in stories about that age group. "We get stories about adolescence, but they bowdlerize the real pain, anxiety, and hope of being a teenager who doesn't have the life experience to contextualize their first love, their first heartbreak," he explains.
Viewers with that life experience, though, may find themselves cringing at the parade of terrible choices Sutter makes, and the terrible influence he has on Aimee as she goes from a tentative first sip from his flask to expertly slipping shots into the nearest paper cup. Adults with even passing experience with addiction or familiarity with the language of therapy and Al-Anon may wonder who is going to start setting boundaries with (or even for) Sutter before he winds up like his absent yet charming father (played by a scruffy Kyle Chandler). When asked why the adults in the film fail to assert their authority when it comes to Sutter's drinking, Ponsoldt is circumspect. "If that's how people behaved in real life, nobody would ever OD on drugs or hurt other people," he says.
Ponsoldt's nonjudgmental, documentarian's stance notwithstanding, some could argue that The Spectacular Now poses a subtle challenge to those who value their villages: If more people surrounding addicts were willing to intervene, could we end death (or grievous injury) by intoxicants?
The Spectacular Now opens Friday, Aug. 16, in Austin. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.
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