The poster for The Spectacular Now is quite misleading. When I first saw it, my eye was drawn to the girl in the yellow dress amidst a sea of green: Two teenagers sitting on the trunk of a used sedan, dressed for prom, and the giant words THE SPECTACULAR NOW. Clearly, this is a teen movie about first love, about high school, about a time and place where the world was right there at our fingertips. The Spectacular Now indeed. What I didn’t know is that the present the girl in the yellow dress is holding is not an innocent prom corsage. It is a flask.
The boy in the poster is Sutter (Miles Teller), a high school senior who doesn’t want to leave high school, his town of Athens, GA, or the bottle. The movie opens with a montage of him partying, having sex with his girlfriend (Brie Larson), and drinking. He narrates all this with excitement and reverence. He loves himself. He also loves everyone around him. But he especially loves drinking. A lot of teenagers drink, but few of them carry a pocket flask and spike their Big Gulps with brandy. Sutter doesn’t think he has a problem, most likely because no one has told him he does. He is such a charming drunk, and nothing terrible has happened. It’s probably just a phase that he’ll grow out of.
Sutter is not just the life of the party; he brings the party with him, often being the party himself. I get the impression that Sutter was more than just the class clown. He was the cool guy with the fake ID, set-up and officiating beer pong games, always first in line at the karaoke machine… He was a blast. He was the toast of the town as a junior, with everyone dancing around him, but it’s senior year, and kids are realizing that they have a future ahead of them. Better get working on it. Sutter gets dumped by his girlfriend because she needs someone that she can see a future with, and Sutter isn’t that guy by a long shot. Sutter scoffs at the future and wonders why everyone else doesn’t. He’s got everything he could want: a car, an easy-going job at a suit and tie shop, and a fake ID. The now is the only thing Sutter has going for him, and Sutter’s now seems pretty spectacular.
One of those students with their whole life in front of them is that girl in the yellow dress, Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is 17, cute, smart, and studious. She is going to college in Pittsburg and has it all planned out. While doing her Mom’s early morning paper route, she comes across the comatose Sutter lying in someone’s front yard. She goes to check on him, and it’s clear that she knows exactly who she is dealing with. I’m willing to bet that she has had a crush on Sutter since freshman year. Sutter pulls his faculties together and ends up helping her with her route. It’s easy to see why Sutter is so attractive to women: he is fun, funny, quick with a compliment, and easy-going. Aimee starts to melt, and Sutter is freshly single. A relationship quickly blossoms.
The relationship is inevitable, but dating the good girl isn’t going to fix Sutter. He likes Aimee but is ready to run back to his ex-girlfriend if given a chance. Aimee on the other hand, is head over heels. When Sutter goes in for a kiss, Aimee hears wedding bells. In Sutter, she sees the possibility of a life that she’s only read about in fairy tales and seen in romantic movies. When Sutter begins to realize that he isn’t good for the people around him, he starts to push her away, only to have Aimee springing back just as hard. She knows all about Sutter’s drinking, but she says nothing. Why? Because she doesn’t want to be a nag, even partaking in Sutter’s many drinking rituals. There was a moment where I worried that the movie might go in the direction of The Days of Wine and Roses and Aimee would end up the one with the serious drinking problem, but Ponsoldt and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber don’t let that happen. Sutter is the one with the problem, and it’s his problem to fix.
What is the genesis of Sutter’s drinking? The movie leaves that ambiguous, although Sutter does tell Aimee that his first drink was when he was six years old and was given to him by his Dad. When Sutter finally gets face-to-face with his old man for the first time since he was a child, the past remains murky, but the future is crystal clear. Tommy (played with precision by Kyle Chandler) is a man who is a lifelong alcoholic, knows it, and is incredibly pained by it but isn’t going to lift a finger to change it. When Sutter asks him why he left, he admits that he did some things that he is not proud of but, “that’s in the past, and the past is the past. I live in the now.” A line not unfamiliar to Sutter.
Tommy is a drinker, a womanizer, and just like Sutter, a charismatic narcissist. The parallel between the two is a tad obvious but probably accurate for a lot of people. A scene late in the movie has Sutter sitting at a dingy bar talking to the typical barfly (Mike Hickman). He spills out his heart, wondering if he’s made the right decision. The barfly puffs him up with the usual paperback affirmations and then suggests a round of shots. I bet Sutter’s dad had this exact same moment in his past. One cup will grant you eternal life, but the wrong cup will take it from you. Choose wisely.
The Spectacular Now is a nostalgia piece of sorts, but it does not sentimentalize the past. It depicts first kisses, first drinks, first dances, first sexual encounters, first I Love Yous, and the first real fight, all with tenderness and honesty. The two lead performances from Teller and Woodley are pitch-perfect in every scene. They are tender when they need to be tender, awkward when they need to be awkward, and when the big fight eventually comes, they are messy with it. They’re too young; they don’t know how to fight yet.
Last year James Ponsoldt came out with a wonderful small movie about two high-functioning alcoholics, Smashed, which didn’t get quite the attention it deserved because another movie with a much bigger budget and a much bigger star battling alcoholism took the attention (plus, Smashed didn’t have an awesome plane crash sequence). Yet, Smashed seems more a real depiction of someone trying to concur the disease. Addiction movies are tough to do because there are not a lot of places to take them. The characters either decide to get better or not. They are either going to make it, or they aren’t. The suspense is light at best. Smashed and The Spectacular Now aren’t so much concerned with the suspense that these characters might not make it; they simply watch them go through the stages, fighting the battles of addiction. While watching Smashed, I wanted Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to get sober, but I couldn’t help but wonder why she wanted to. What did she want that was just out of her grasp, held back by the bottle? What had she lost because of excessive drinking? As she points out herself, it wasn’t until she sobered up that things actually started to go wrong for her. In The Spectacular Now, things are just starting to go wrong, and they are only going to get worse. It’s time for Sutter to make a decision. I hope it’s the right one.
The Spectacular Now (2013)
Directed By: James Ponsoldt
Written By: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Based on the novel The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp
Produced By: Michelle Krumm, Andrew Lauren, Shawn Levy, Tom McNulty
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chander, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mike Hickman, Dayo Okeniyi
A24, Running time 95 minutes, Rated R, Released August 2, 2013.