James Ponsoldt Breathes Dramatic Life into the John Hughes Teen Formula

The Spectacular Now’s Sutter (Miles Teller) leads a good life, a damned good life for an onscreen high school senior. He may seem all too familiar to those of us weaned on the John Hughes teen comedies of the 1980s, because if you squint and tilt

Sutter (Miles Teller) leads a good life, a damned good life for an onscreen high school senior. He’s popular without being a jock or the class president. He’s got a great girlfriend named Cassidy (Brie Larson) who’s his fun-time soul mate; the two of them are the center of every party and each other’s lives. Sutter may seem all too familiar to those of us weaned on the John Hughes teen comedies of the 1980s, because if you squint and tilt your head to the left a little, The Spectacular Now’s Sutter is the modern-day incarnation of Ferris Bueller. 

But Sutter is burdened with a few characteristics that dear old Ferris lacked. Like, for starters, he’s got an overabundance of soul. Not the hip-cool variety that gets spent amongst the school cliques, although Sutter does indeed have more of that than he’ll ever need. No, Sutter actually has a big and surprisingly good soul, the genuine real deal. He’s loyal and far more honest in his interpersonal interactions than most of the people around him, and when it comes right down to it, Sutter has a huge heart, full of love. Not something you expect from the protagonist in a teen movie.

On the downside, though, Sutter also carries around a lodestone of an addiction to alcohol. The disease is never directly referenced in the film, but we see a litany worth of symptoms on display right from the start. 

In fact, it is thanks to a blackout after a drinking binge (after getting dumped by Cassidy) that results in Sutter coming face-to-face with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a fellow senior whose social profile is completely off the Sutter radar until she discovers him passed out on a stranger’s lawn with no idea where his car is. Aimee responds immediately to Sutter’s sincere and honest charms, the very aspects of himself that he tends to distrust. There’s something in Aimee, an unconditional openness to Sutter that recalls Punch-Drunk Love and its hopeful, redemptive nature. 

Of course, we see how, through that opening of her heart, Aimee becomes susceptible to the seductive vice of his addiction. They have more fun, become more honest and more daring in confronting their issues with the help of a shot or two. 

And it is here that director James Ponsoldt harkens to his previous release, last year’s Smashed with Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who has a supporting role in this film as Sutter’s older sister Holly) as a smart couple dragging each other down into the depths of a recycling bin full of empties. Everything about life is so good, until it’s not.

Ponsoldt, working so well within the seeming confines of the teen narrative, foregoes the comedy, stripping the gloss and sheen off every aspect of the frame, leaving us, as he did in Smashed, with a real and sadly human waste of potential. We see the trajectory for Sutter, every stumble down the staircase, and while he never takes a serious head-over-heels tumble — the kind that could break his neck — he’s certainly gaining speed and losing his sense of balance.

The amazing thing is to watch the performance of Teller, who, like Winstead in Smashed, cues us in along the way. Teller daringly pushes himself and his obvious charisma further than Winstead and the results give the film a more emotional punch. 

Winstead was a bit too reserved; maybe as a function of the idea that it would be more difficult to watch a woman so dramatically debase herself. Teller gets a few more opportunities to veer along the road and he makes the most of them, always finding the center of each moment.

It is more likely that audiences will be drawn toward Woodley. She’s the up-and-comer, so memorable in The Descendants and gaining traction for her upcoming appearance in Neil Burger’s Divergent. She embodies the soft loving acceptance much more naturally than Emily Watson did in Punch-Drunk Love, but that doesn’t mean Woodley’s not working as hard. We’ve seen the harder edges in her Descendants turn; we know she’s got real steel underneath.

What The Spectacular Now creates is a thoroughly lived-in world, richer than the plot-driven dynamics of those Hughes movies. Let’s not dismiss them out of hand, though. They were effective facsimiles of a certain suburban experience, but that was then and this current iteration, this Now feels, in every moment, spectacularly human. (R)

Grade: A


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