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PARK CITY – As they did in his 2012 Sundance hit Smashed, the perils of alcoholism loom large in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, a sincere, refreshingly unaffected look at teenagers and their attitudes about the future. Wonderfully acted by the kids and adults and smartly adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel by the (500) Days of Summer team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber with a studious avoidance of hipster posturing, this fundamentally serious film poses a commercial challenge by the way it not so much falls between two stools as it embraces both adolescent and grown-up perspectives. The right distributor would be the one that could miraculously attract both audience segments, however fanciful that dream might be.
It says a lot for the depth of the writing and the characterization to acknowledge that it takes the entire film to fully get a handle on Sutter Keely. Ineffably played with a genial, easygoing charm by Miles Teller (Project X, Footloose), this high school senior has a devil-may-care, no-problem attitude that more than compensates for his lack of classic good looks and attracts guys and girls like the sun; even the most impressive kid in school, the black star athlete and class president, envies his smooth skills. Still, his line of B.S. has its limits, prompting his girlfriend to jump ship and him to get plastered.
But even as he awakens at 6 a.m. on the lawn of an unfamiliar home, Sutter’s got a ready line of patter for one of its occupants, classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a bright, industrious, innocent girl who’s into sci-fi and never has been part of the in crowd or had a boyfriend.
For Sutter, this perceived ugly duckling would be easy pickings, but he soon comes to really like her, and it’s a tribute to one aspect of his nature that he doesn’t take advantage of her naivete or eagerness until she’s good and ready. To her amazement, he asks her to the prom, but red lights flash when he gives her a present of a flask, something one may or may not have noticed he almost always carries with him.
No matter how beguiling the actors and dialogue may be, for a good little while the story’s incidents remain undeniably familiar, its concerns relatively ordinary; it’s kids’ stuff, nicely done. However, a dinner party at the opulent home of Sutter’s well-married older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, star of Smashed) raises the hitherto unmentioned specter of their father, long since disappeared.
Already, it has become clear that a major difference between Aimee and Sutter is that, whereas she likes to dream and plan for the future, he never thinks ahead or considers the consequences of anything. As she lost her father when she was young, Aimee insists that he look up his dad, something his beleaguered mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) always has adamantly opposed.
But when Sutter and Aimee finally track the man down, it’s immediately apparent that Mom had very good reasons to keep her son away from him; Dad (Kyle Chandler) is a good-looking guy gone to seed, a barfly who, in the end, skips out on his son and sticks him with the tab for an afternoon’s worth of beer. He is, all too obviously, what Sutter easily will become unless he gets his act together.
This recognition depresses Sutter deeply, not least because he now knows he’s an alcoholic and not the right guy for Aimee. There is more drama in store, but ultimately, Mom has the final words of wisdom to impart to her troubled but bighearted son.
Ordinary in some ways and extraordinary in others, The Spectacular Now benefits from an exceptional feel for its main characters on the parts of the director and lead actors. There is pleasure whenever Teller is onscreen, which is nearly always, and the young actor seems equally at home conveying Sutter’s conviviality as he later does his deep torment. Looking plain, even homely and singularly unadorned, Woodley is worlds away from the svelte hottie she portrayed two years ago in The Descendents but again is entirely terrific.
By contrast, most of the other kids are more recognizably superficial and stereotyped. The adults, particularly Chandler as the jaw-droppingly irresponsible father, are uniformly excellent.
Shot in and around Ponsoldt’s base of Athens, Ga., the film is small-scaled but looks solid.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production: Andrew Lauren Productions, 21 Laps Entertainment, Global Produce Productions
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk, Kaitlyn Dever, Andre Royo, Masam Holden, Dayo Okeniyi
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by Tim Tharp
Producers: Tom McNulty, Shawn Levy, Andrew Lauren, Michelle Krumm
Executive producers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, Marc Shmuger
Director of photography: Jess Hall
Production designer: Linda Sena
Costume designer: Peggy Stamper
Editor: Darrin Navarro
Music: Rob Simonsen
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