Friday, December 19, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #2: The Spectacular Now

"I'd like to think that there's more to a person than just one thing," Aimee Finicky says early in The Spectacular Now. I'd like to think she's right. There is certainly more than just one thing to The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt's swooning, touching third feature. Like Aimee, it refuses to be pigeonholed. This is partly because, in strict genre terms, it has no strict genre; instead, it melds elements of various tropes, making it not only a winning coming-of-age story, but also an earnest teen romance, a wistful family drama, and even a sobering study of addiction. But far more important than the multiplicity of the film's form is the raw power of its content. The Spectacular Now is not one thing, because it is many things: spry and funny, sad and heartfelt, honest and scary, rueful and rewarding. It's a movie that would make Aimee Finicky proud.

Aimee, beautifully played by Shailene Woodley, is the film's soul, but she is not its nominal hero. That would be Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a brash, confident teenager who opens the movie narrating his college application essay, in which he waxes poetic about his recent glory days. As Sutter moans about his recent breakup, you may suspect that you've met him in other movies before, and that The Spectacular Now will trace his familiar arc from outcast to victor. But as it turns out, Sutter is not so easily classifiable. He's lovesick, but he's not a mope. He's popular, but he's not a jock. And though he's smart, he does not appear to be a great student or even have an especially bright future. What he does have, though—and what Teller conveys so persuasively and effortlessly—is an abundance of ebullient personality, a gregariousness that simultaneously excites people and puts them at their ease. Oh, and he also has a drug habit.

More particularly, Sutter is an alcoholic, a condition he shares with the protagonists of Ponsoldt's prior film, Smashed. Rarely seen without guzzling an anonymous liquid through a straw in a Big Gulp or sneaking clandestine pulls from a flask, Sutter is pleasantly half-drunk most of the time. Yet Ponsoldt, working from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the highly talented scribes behind (500) Days of Summer and The Fault in Our Stars), presents Sutter's alcoholism less as a vexatious disease than as a factual circumstance—it is an explicable effect of his upbringing and a symptom of his need to be constantly charming. The movie does not condone Sutter's drinking, but neither does it condemn him for it. It simply observes, with quiet understanding, how alcohol can serve as a social lubricant whose abuse can produce uniquely distressing consequences. It's a rare, measured approach to a malady that most movies address with shrill didacticism. But Ponsoldt is far too preoccupied with other matters to castigate Sutter for his compulsion.

Specifically, the heart of The Spectacular Now is the tender relationship that blossoms between Sutter and Aimee. She is in many ways Sutter's opposite, shy and tentative, with a limited social circle, and they initially seem an unlikely match. Yet from their ignominious first encounter—in which Aimee discovers Sutter sprawled out on a lawn after a particularly aggressive bender—a strange, awkward chemistry begins to build. Aimee, naturally, is smitten with Sutter's casual charisma, even as she struggles to process the directness of his flattery. (Her response to Sutter matter-of-factly informing her that she's beautiful: "Oh my God, no!") But Sutter is equally transfixed by Aimee's innocence, which he finds both enchanting and perplexing, and which Woodley evokes with astonishing naturalism. As a result, their courtship—including a magnificent four-minute walk-and-talk at an outdoor party, which Ponsoldt captures in a single, unfussy take—is charged with fascination and unpredictability.

It also appears to be fraught with peril. "You're going to break her heart," a friend warns Sutter, citing the gulf between his and Aimee's romantic experience. And maybe he will. Certainly, Sutter is as confused as he is enthralled, which only makes the deepening of Aimee's attraction all the more dangerous. (Never before has the simple phrase "I like you so much" been uttered with such heartbreaking sincerity as Woodley provides here.) But Aimee is made of stronger stuff than first appears, and once again, The Spectacular Now demonstrates little interest in conforming to the rules of any genre or to the audience's expectations. And as interested as Sutter is in Aimee, he is also bent on tracking down his long-absent father (the great Kyle Chandler). He eventually does, and their reunion is a marvel of sharp, surprising storytelling, mingling happiness and anticipation with bitterness and toxicity.

That swirl of emotions is typical of The Spectacular Now, which extends its generosity of feeling to its entire cast. Sutter's mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is both supportive and exasperated, doing her best but angry that she isn't doing better. Similarly, his boss at a part-time job (an excellent, wonderfully restrained Bob Odenkirk) is presented as equal parts friend and father figure, leading to a late scene of startling poignancy. Even supporting characters with minimal screen time, like Sutter's ex-girlfriend (Short Term 12's Brie Larson) and his older sister (Smashed's Mary Elizabeth Winstead), feel like fully developed people with messy, complicated lives of their own.

But in the end, it all comes back to Aimee. In a narrative embattled with compromise, disappointment, and loss, she is a figure of pure luminescence, and Woodley's performance is so delicately fragile that it becomes overpowering. She is more than Sutter deserves, a fact that he first ignores, then accepts, and ultimately attempts to overcome. And so, the movie's final act is heart-stopping in its impact, even if it is also, like the rest of the film, nuanced, thoughtful, and true. It's a fitting capper for a movie of extraordinary warmth and depth of feeling. So perhaps Aimee was wrong, and The Spectacular Now can be reduced to one thing after all: It's glorious.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #3: Gravity
The Best Movies of 2013, #4: Blue Is the Warmest Color
The Best Movies of 2013, #5: Captain Phillips
The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

No comments: