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The Spectacular Now (2013)

Drunk History

"A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it."

--Jean de La Fontaine

If you're a relatively well-adjusted person who grew up in a stable household, you'll probably love The Spectacular Now. If, like me, the ages between sentience and, say, thirty-three were fraught with paranoia, fear, and deep scars made fresh every day by abuse (external and otherwise), you'll also probably love James Ponsoldt's new film--but in a way that melds appreciation with the sick, sticky pull of memory.

Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (working from Tim Tharp's young adult novel) pull no punches in constructing the story of teen alcoholic Sutter Keely's (Miles Teller) last summer before college. "Constructing" feels like the wrong word to use: the filmmakers hide their story beats very well, glossing over them with ultra-realistic performances and a structure that meanders drunkenly along the curb on its way to wherever the hell the audience thought it was supposed to go.

Sutter is like Vince Vaughn's character from Swingers; not the hip, wanna-be-like-him Vaughn of the opening, but the drunk, belligerent freak whipping his shirt around during its climactic diner scene. We meet him in a bombastic opening montage of partying and clowning around, as he tries to forget being dumped by his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson). This whirlwind of bar-hopping and general obnoxiousness is set to the escalating sounds of a wasted marching band playing circus music, and culminates with Sutter racing down the road, yelling at the world.

Sutter wakes up on someone's lawn, prompted by the shy and lovely Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She discovered him, car-less and passed out, while working her mom's paper route. It's a sad meet-cute that lays the charming but dark foundation of their relationship. Sutter coaxes Aimee out of her shell (aided by booze, of course), and she gives him the gift of being depended on--an utterly foreign feeling that he doesn't handle very well. Ponsoldt follows these tragic characters through the end of their senior year and through a summer that will define them both.

That may sound like the outline of every bad, teen-targeted CW drama, but The Spectacular Now is an exercise in naturalism. The filmmakers sprinkle in moments that we may have seen before--or whose outcomes we think we can predict--only to make sharp left turns that avoid manipulation on the way to truth. When Cassidy's new boyfriend, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) confronts Sutter at work over an alleged cheating incident, it's natural to assume one of them will end up either bloodied or escorted out. Instead, we're treated to an awkward moment that turns tender, and reveals truths to and about these young men that are alternately uplifting and crushing.

Sutter thinks he's a popular kid, a beloved one-man party who weaves effortlessly through social circles. As he realizes how much of that self-image is drawn from his omnipresent, liquor-filled soda cup, his desire to figure out why he acts the way he does intensifies. This leads to a quest to find his deadbeat father (a nearly unrecognizable Kyle Chandler), despite the warnings of his resentful mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and well-to-do older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Aimee makes the mistake of tagging along, setting in motion the film's heartbreaking last act.

Don't worry: nobody dies. Sure, that's kind of a spoiler, but it's an important one. I recognize that voice in your head, the one that's really good at plot-synopsis math: "Teen Drama + Alcohol + 'Heartbreaking Last Act' = Corpses Everywhere". In this case, the heartbreak comes from knowing that these kids likely have very long lives ahead of them, filled with struggling against substance-abuse and co-dependency issues. While The Spectacular Now ends on what might be considered a hopeful tone at first glance, the final shot suggests that things could go either way for these characters.

The film's success hinges on two factors: the leads' touching, unaffected performances, and Ponsoldt's ability to capture the beautiful subtleties that make up important moments between his characters. The actors carry themselves casually, and the spontaneity of their line delivery makes this the least-written-sounding movie in recent memory. Oddly, the movie has two makeup artists, but it's unclear to me if they did any work on Teller and Woodley: both are sufficiently puffy and pimpled, which helps scrape away the cinematic layer of artificiality.

Teller has made quite a career of playing various kinds of high school misfits, and Sutter Keely is like an Honors English composite of them. He wears three masks of varying believability and Teller allows us to catch him switching between them. In an instant, his good-time-guy persona can turn to guarded bitterness or burning vulnerability, and Teller's face is one of the great ones as far as capturing an emotional stomach-punch while trying to keep things together.

For her part, Woodley is a revelation, even for those of us who've watched her mature from "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" to The Descendants. It's going to be hard taking her seriously in roles after this one, because whatever comes next is doomed to feel unbelievable in comparison. Never for a second did I think, "Wow, she's doing a great job portraying a confused young girl." Instead, I marveled at how specifically she embodied girls I knew growing up.

While it's unfair of me to expect that all dramas lean as far towards cinéma-vérité as Ponsoldt does here, I've definitely been spoiled by The Spectacular Now. In the fine tradition of Say Anything, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, this film penetrates the soul with well-observed honesty. I left the theatre elated at having finally seen something real in this dead, sensationalist season. I was also spooked at the ease with which the film unceremoniously smashed open an emotional regret-box I'd locked, chained, and buried long ago. That is to say, if you plan on seeing one of the year's best films, prepare to be devastated.

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