Sunday, January 19, 2014
The Spectacular Now has a grace and melancholia to it that sets it apart somehow. I watched it a couple nights ago and still feel its beautiful haze. The stars make it blur into nostalgia and dream. Shallene Woodley plays Aimee Finicky, a geeky, sweet high school kid who falls in love with Sutter Kelly, a snarky, sweet, alcoholic in-school stand-up comedian played by Miles Teller. Both actors effortlessly merge together; they have the sort of chemistry you can't manufacture or even act out. It's how their eyes fuse together, the way their bodies interrelate even when a scene is just about walking around talking. The Spectacular Now is about the ache of trying to separate yourself from your family while also understanding you are ineffably connected to them without a way out, except possibly through a connection to someone else that's deep enough to make you see yourself anew. That's a lot of bull-shit, I know, but the movie has a power of intention that's so organic no one struggles to convey the multitude of really deep emotions being portrayed. They are just living on-screen.
The movie is directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the book of the same name by Tim Tharp). It's their efforts that yield that easy feeling, a sort of soft-edge to the edginess that provides relief and seriousness simultaneously. Shot in Athens, Georgia, the houses and streets seem to glow with sense-memory stylization, but also they are humdrum enough to be anywhere. The movies' music and cinematography and set design are dedicated to a series of moments we are privy to without a frame of reverence or irony. We're just there, focused on what we need to see.
Woodley is so gorgeously not gorgeous, plain but devastatingly accessible, kind of like Ellen Burstyn back in the 70s. Her quiet deft way of moving into and out of scenes, and the way she makes herself central by mastering the periphery is never twee or come-hither. It's just the character she's playing. Conversely, Teller's Sutter is over-the-top and sneaky and beautiful without being "cute," and it's to the movie's credit his love for Aimee is never about slumming but somehow about extracting a realness from the lies he keeps telling himself. Sutter is a riff on Lloyd Dobler, the main character in Cameron Crowe's teen-love 1989 masterpiece, Say Anything. But while Lloyd was an outlier and apologist, Sutter is an inside-player, without cynicism or even regret. He's just a guy, and his pursuit of Aimee eventually becomes a way for us to see the both of them escaping their own futures in order to create a new one together.
One last piece of praise: Kyle Chandler is incredible as Sutter's no-good dad. There's a scene in a bar where Chandler's performance is so haunting and sketchy you truly believe the father is worthless and yet you also can't give up on him.