***This week’s guest post is from Erica Todd, a film lovin’ New Zealander-Austinite and programming apprentice for the Austin Film Society.***
Included in Austin Film Society’s fantastic August program was a special screening of “The Spectacular Now” attended by director James Ponsoldt. The film’s premiere at Sundance in January and showings at subsequent film festivals created quite a buzz.
The content of the plot is no big secret for viewers familiar with Tim Tharp’s novel, which provided the source material. The trailer, like many others that market contemporary films, also points to some of the major features of the film. “The Spectacular Now” is a coming-of-age story that places emphasis on teenage protagonist Sutter’s relationships using time as a thematic device.
“The Spectacular Now” is by no means innovative in using evolving relationships with family and friends as catalysts for introspection and personal growth. Although Sutter Keely’s (Miles Keller) interactions with his mother, friend, boss and father are significant to his maturation, it is his romantic relationship with Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) that takes a central role. Indeed in the discussion that followed our screening of the film, one of the first commenters drew a comparison to the romantic elements of John Hughes’ works.
In his response, Ponsoldt mentioned instead Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass” as formative, which is particularly striking. Much like Kazan’s 1961 film, “The Spectacular Now” illustrates the highs and lows of negotiating life and love as a teenager in a raw and realistic fashion. In this way, “The Spectacular Now” deviates from many other popular films that deal with young romance. The protagonists and their friends do not have model-esque looks, nor do they have entirely admirable personalities. Sutter is genuinely unlikable at numerous moments throughout the film due to his treatment of the people around him, while at times, Aimee is equally frustrating for putting up with his behavior.
The allegorical and literal references to time that abound (beginning with the film’s title), however, elucidate their actions. Aimee does not think about the present and her idealistic nature means she thinks only of the future and her dreams. Sutter, on the other hand, rejoices in his current stage of life. He exclaims, “This is the youngest we’re ever going to be,” while decrying his impending adulthood.
For me, one of the most salient sequences of “The Spectacular Now” was Sutter’s reunion with his absentee father (Kyle Chandler) and the realization that they share the motto: to “live in the now.” Where Sutter had justified his treatment of women, abuse of alcohol and flippant attitude towards matters deserving of serious attention, his father’s similar conduct revealed the importance of considering the consequences of such a lifestyle.
Although the tone is solemn at times, “The Spectacular Now” has many light-hearted moments, often achieved through sequences portraying non-verbal interactions and Keller’s charismatic performance as Sutter. The collective laughs, sighs and gasps of everyone in the theater indicates that “The Spectacular Now” successfully challenges its audience by presenting realistic people on screen, not generic characters.