The Spectacular Now | James Ponsoldt | August 2nd, 2013
Hollywood, Eat Your Heart Out. Director James Ponsoldt helms this adaption of Tim Tharp’s novel, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber of (500) Days of Summer fame. The duo has once again aligned an entirely human film, one that doesn’t feel bought or sold by the industry.
Cinema, just like all forms of art, should not be limited to one sort of philosophy or expression. Our Saturday nights are filled with dates to see boilerplate romantic comedies that instill false expectations about what ‘love’ should be. The Spectacular Now brilliantly defies these bonds and still manages to capture your heart. The screenplay is immaculate, some of the greatest writing I’ve ever seen. It’s not filled with pointless rhetoric or situations that reinforce awful gender stereotypes. It dares you to construct your opinion of it’s characters with your own mind…things that are commonly forced upon the viewer in lesser works. This sketch is transformed into a beautiful portrait of the examined life.
Coming from oddly antonymous films such as Project X (2012) and 21 & Over (2013), Miles Teller portrays Sutter Keely; an underachieving, witty high school senior and the evolved “class clown”. His plans for the future are non-existent, and he lives wholly in the present. He veils his problems with humor, playing everything off as paltry and attempting to build a wall to block out negativity. We all know that this sort of activity leads to destructive behavior, and Sutter has become a functioning alcoholic. His emphasis on the ‘now’ has lead him into making empty promises to his family, teachers, and girlfriends. By the devices of fate (and alcohol), he finds himself waking up on Aimee Finecky’s front lawn.
Aimee, played by Shailene Woodley, is your textbook wallflower girl. She’s intelligent, into manga, and largely untainted by the evil high school machine. Unlike Sutter, she has aspirations and likes to design her future. She’s never had a boyfriend, never boozed, and most likely has never been to the principal’s office. She arduously works a paper route each morning at 5am to help her widowed mother pay the bills. She’s the ideal “girl next door”. But as perfect as she sounds, Aimee finds herself caught off guard by Sutter’s extroverted charms, leading rather quickly to romance. Naivety can harbor both the positive and negative, so do opposites actually attract?
Miles and Shailene truly own this film, among an outstanding supporting cast. Every word, every awkward move, every sparkle in their eye is convincing. You know their characters in your own life, you’ve seen them in the halls of your school. They have scars, blemishes, and secrets. Both actors have an innate chemistry together, enough to make you feel the emotions and butterflies right there in your theater seat. The Spectacular Now has the unique ability to show how monumentally important the nuances of a relationship are. Just the common act of holding someone’s hand is such a thing to appreciate, but it tends to be taken for granted by most over the years, including mainstream Hollywood. Intimacy has a broader definition than unbounded carnal desire. (Though, the film does sport one of the most realistic sex scenes ever. No cheap music, no colorful performance, just a moment of passion caught on the reel.) The point being, you will probably remember your ‘first time’ as you watch this movie. The first time you held someone’s hand, your first slow dance, the first time you kissed, and the first time you bumped uglies. It masterfully plays upon your senses and naturally brings out your nostalgia to such things, a rare achievement in the realm of romantic film. Through all of this cozy bliss, the story slowly chips away at their characters, revealing the imperfection that every single one of us possesses.
Sutter’s fate is always implied, but slowly reinforced with every destructive action he takes. His drinking gets worse, and he also starts influencing Aimee to a degree. A calm and balmy beach party with Washed Out’s ‘New Theory’ saturating the sunset is replaced by darkened night. Sutter constantly has the audience changing their judgement of him. His intentions are good, but he continues to bring himself and others close to danger. This leads him to making one of the hardest decisions: Choosing to carry on in the present, or to remove yourself to save someone else’s future.
Never has youth been portrayed so genuinely, at least, in recent memory. The Spectacular Now is one of the most truthful films I’ve had the pleasure of viewing. It reminds us that relationships are often at sixes and sevens. What is the difference between ‘talking to’, ‘seeing’, ‘dating’, and ‘being in a relationship’ with someone these days? It inspires us to examine ourselves and our relationships, to talk about them. While life is beautiful, things will never be perfect no matter who you are. Reality always reigns. These characters exist as plainly as you and I do, and everyone will be able to form some connection to them. They have real conversations and real issues. Their smiles and tears are genuine and their love is true.
And everyone is walking around with scars, some are just better at hiding them.
Q&A With Screenwriter
Michael H. Weber
It’s your captain, Collin, speaking. After my screening of The Spectacular Now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I had the opportunity to sit in for a Q&A with screenwriter Michael H. Weber. Here is the edited transcript, with some major spoilers removed and a little flow. It offers a lot of insight into the making of the film.
The characters in this talk like real people. Aimee, when she is told she is beautiful for the first time and laughs and says “Oh god no!” with that smile like ‘keep it coming’ but ‘I can’t believe it’. That shyness, that human honesty. How, as a writer, do you get to that?
A lot of that was in the script and a lot of that was Shailene. She was nineteen when we made the movie, and was consistently was the smartest, most prepared, and most professional person on set. Every single day, it totally blew me away. She, in fact, elevated that character. I like what we did with the character in the script, and it’s based on a great book by Tim Tharp, and he did wonderful things in the book. But it was a little bit of that sort of “wallflower girl” and she’s kind of shy and “if she’d only take off her glasses”, there’s a little bit of that there. From the first time we met Shailene, she said she didn’t see the the character that way at all. For her, it was “Aimee is the smartest person in that entire town.” She already knew at such a young age that there was more to life than high school, and more to life than this small town. Unlike Sutter, who is so busy living in the moment, she knows that her journey is just beginning. We knew we had found the right Aimee.
That seems so much more true to real life than the ‘Rachel Leigh Cook’ character, who just becomes hot.
It’s funny you say that. This movie took five years to get made, (500) Days took five years also. (500) was sort of our response to Hollywood had been making romantic comedies, because they just seemed so dumb for so long. It was like ‘He likes peanut butter, she likes jelly, how are the going to overcome this?’ Just so stupid. (500) was sort of born out of that frustration. This movie was born out of a similar frustration, because, I think the first genre of film I fell in love with were John Hughes movies and early Cameron Crowe movies. I loved Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it inspired me to cut school way too many times. It seemed like for a while, all of the movies about young people had vampires, kids with superpowers, or sex with baked goods, and we just wanted to make a movie that didn’t have any of those things.
In all of those movies like that, when characters fall in love, you almost have to have a problem. The antagonistic forces working against their love so often seem absurd. Angry friends you just don’t have to listen to, or the one white lie perhaps the boy tells the girl the first time they meet.
Those are the worst. There’s an hour in the middle there ‘HE’S ABOUT TO TELL HER!’, they’re on a date at the aquarium and he gets bit in the ass by a dolphin…yeah, I hate it.
Well, in here the antagonist force working against them is Sutter himself and the problem he has that everyone in town can see, but won’t speak about to him honestly. That seemed like a very unique approach.
Honestly when we’re writing, we don’t ever say things like ‘We need a set piece here or a trailer moment,’ or do that marketing stuff. Most of the time when we’re outlining or stuck on something, we just go back to the same question all the time: ‘What would really happen?’ Then we talk about ourselves, we talk about our friends, we just talk about stuff we know is real, and that’s sort of a jumping off point for what we do.
At what point should we or do we begin to suspect the drinking as a problem?
In the book, which is told in the first person, the drinking is an issue from the first few pages. The book starts with Sutter at a convenience store on his way to school in the morning, and he picks up a kittle kid on the side of the road who is running away from home. He’s talking to this kid and trying to convince him not to run away, and this kid is talking about problems at home, and it’s a really sweet conversation. You realize that Ferris Bueller quality of ‘Wow this guy, you like him’ and he’s sort of a friend to everyone in that Ferris way. Then you realize in the middle of that conversation he’s spiking his Big Gulp, it’s like nine o’clock in the morning and he’s drunk driving.
Drinking was always a part of this movie. We were very lucky to find a producer and financier, Andrew Lauren, who wasn’t scared of that, and it’s part of why this took so many years. It started as a studio movie at Fox Searchlight, the same people who made (500). And it was always going to be an R-rated movie, they weren’t scared of that. The thing with a studio movie is that people take other jobs and they leave. We just simply lost our ‘champions’. When you have riskier subject material and the people at the studio go work somewhere else, it becomes a hot potato project that nobody wants to claim responsibility for. That’s why we had to make it independently, which meant a fifth as much money to play with. But on an independent film there’s nobody on set to say ‘Wait a second, they’ve already dropped three f-bombs, we can’t have another’; you just make the movie you want to make. When it was a studio movie, we got notes like ‘Hey, in that party scene when Sutter is sort of walking through the party in the beginning, can there be a wet t-shirt contest?’ You just hear these things and are like ‘Uh, that’s not what we’re trying to do here.’ So it was nice that we could be honest about elements like drinking and sex and language by doing it independently.
You feel Aimee slipping away a little bit sometimes as the film goes on. She’s drinking a little bit more, she’s enjoying her flask a little too much…
We could have had more drinking, again it’s an independent film so you could have had much more of it. We never wanted this to feel like an after-school special so, how much do you show, how much do you talk about it? Because, for us, we always viewed this as a love story.
All of the parties feel low-key like actual high school parties, rather than kegger blowouts.
Yeah that’s the thing. I’ve never been to a party like Project X. That movie is really great at what it does, and Miles is in it and really great in it, but maybe I was just getting invited to the wrong parties growing up. Part of that is budget, too. Every dollar counts. You could only afford so many extras, so you have to do things to kind of cheat a little. It’s why graduation is kind of ending, not starting. Honestly 200, 300 extras and families in caps and gowns is really expensive. When you’re in these meetings beforehand, and Scott and I were producers on this movie for the first time, and it’s like ‘Okay, we can afford to have it be the beginning of graduation, or we can afford Kyle Chandler. I want Kyle Chandler.’ So we did the end of graduation, and that worked just fine.
In the film, the graduation scene was a very effective choice to just see the end because graduation doesn’t mean that much to him, just as prom isn’t all that important to her. There’s something strange, surprising and refreshing about a teen romance where prom happens about 45 minutes into the movie, and then it’s gone in a moment.
There’s a scene in the book where Aimee gets way too drunk at prom and she throws up publicly and she slaps Cassidy. We shot it, and it just didn’t play right, it just felt off. Once we had it in the movie and we were watching rough cuts, we realized the low point of the movie for her character shouldn’t be that ’embarrassing moment at prom’ kind of thing. She doesn’t care about high school in that way anyway, socially it doesn’t matter to her, so the stakes don’t make sense in that regard. Her low point as a character is that conversation in her bedroom after the climax. In a different, healthier relationship that conversation is ‘We need to talk’ and in the movie it’s ‘Let’s not talk about it’. That’s her low point, because she’s still in this sort of in this codependent thing and hasn’t grown beyond the need she’s getting out of this (relationship).