I do make the effort around this time of year to see some of the “Oscar-bait” movies that are released. These are the smaller-budget, art-house, festival-circuit films that seem to be released mainly in December to keep them fresh in the voters’ minds for the awards season early next year. I have never been a fan of these movies, I prefer to go to movies for an escape. I am looking for something big and fun, where I can see every single penny of the budget on the screen. These movies are more about the characters, the story, and the acting. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and it definitely is a showcase for multiple talents: writers, actors, and especially directors (film is a director’s medium, stage is the actor’s medium). I rarely enjoy these movies, just because they are not entertaining. They are not meant to be, they are meant to display the drama of life. That’s why I prefer a big, dumb action movie over a quiet small drama film, I have enough drama in my real life – let me go to the movies to see something fun!
The Spectacular Now is not fun, and was actually released in September, but it had a very limited release, so chances are that not many people saw it. It was strangely marketed as a comedy (never ever believe any art-house or Oscar-bait movie that states it is a comedy…it’s not – at least not in the traditional sense). It is essentially a 95 minute character study of an 18 year old drunk. Sutter is currently in his senior year of high school, and thrilled with his girlfriend as they bounce from party to party, drinking and living it up. He doesn’t really care about his classes anymore, and hasn’t really thought much about applying to college. He’s too busy, living in the ‘now’, and enjoying the moment.
His older sister lives nearby with her husband, and his mother seems to be a nurse working a lot of double shifts, so no one is around to tell him to stop drinking. He and his girlfriend break-up as she begins to realize how aimless he is. After waking up after a drunken stupor in a classmate’s front yard, he starts to date her (Aimee), and begins want more. He convinces his sister to give him the where-abouts of his father, who he believes was kicked out by his mother years ago. He goes to visit him, and realizes that his father is a shiftless drunk livening in the ‘now’, with absolutely no ambition. Shocked by the realization that he is very much like his father, he decides to make some changes. Living in the now is fine, but you do need to be aware of preparing for the future.
Directed by James Ponsoldt, who also did Smashed (a movie about two married alcoholics whose marriage is tested when one decides to get sober) and Off the Black (an aging alcoholic gets a younger friend to pose as his son at a high school reunion), this movie again centers around an alcoholic. The difference between this and the other two movies is that the alcoholic is younger this time. Perhaps Ponsoldt is familiar with the ways of alcoholics; maybe they just fascinate him, who knows. Either way – I found the amount of drinking by these children exceptionally off-putting. Even more off-putting was the fact that there was really no repercussions to the underage drinking. There is one car accident, and it actually doesn’t really have to do with the drinking. Pondsoldt does a great job with actors he is familiar with, and creates a small intimate story with some really great performances.
- Miles Teller plays Sutter, and he does have to carry the entire movie on his own. He’s that kid that annoyed you in high school, who rules the school, and has no ambitions for anything further. He was previously in 21&Over and Project X, so clearly he is great at playing a hard-partying high-schooler. He is certainly good in this, and gets better as the film progresses, and we get to watch him convey Sutter’s hard discovery that perhaps his life philosophy is not all that it is cracked up to be.
- Shailene Woodley plays Aimee, and she does a really good job of being at first surprised that Sutter would like someone like her, then genuinely caring about him, and then completely in love with him. Her character gets a little less to do, but she does a good job with what is there. She was good in the Descendants, and has Divergent coming out soon – apparently Teller is in that as well.
- Brie Larson, who has done a lot of TV work (she was the daughter on United States of Tara), plays Cassidy. She is Sutter’s perfect girlfriend who parties with him, until she realizes that maybe she wants more, and starts dating the star athlete and class president. She’s very good in a quietly layered performance. It could have been a one-note character, and she does as much with it as she can.
- Masam Holden plays Ricky – who is Sutter’s friend (his only friend?). Sutter sets him up with a girl, and Ricky attempts to get Sutter to realize some things about himself before he hurts Aimee.
- Dayo Okeniyi plays Marcus, the athlete/president who Cassidy trades up to. He’s pretty great, and does get one moment with Sutter that helps Sutter realize that everyone thinks he is a joke.
- Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Sutter’s mom, and while she is good she’s barely in the movie, and I just kept wanted her to stop Sutter from drinking so much. Did I mention that all the teen drinking bothered me? But not nearly as the complete lack of consequences of the teen drinking bothered me?
- Andre Royo plays the one teacher in the high school that we are introduced to. He attempts to get Sutter to focus on his schoolwork, to no avail. He again helps Sutter begin to realize that maybe people have written him off.
- Bob Odenkirk continues to prove he has a future as a real actor as Sutter’s boss in his after-school job. He is yet another character that helps Sutter realize he’s going nowhere, but that people genuinely like him and want him to take the next step. Odenkirk has very few scenes, but is very good.
- Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Sutter’s older sister. Again – very few scenes, but very good. She gives Sutter access to his father, which is the catalyst for making him want to change.
- Kyle Chandler plays the long-lost father, and is very good. If you are familiar with Kyle Chandler, you are not surprised by that statement. When Sutter first reaches out to him, you hope that he’s going to be a great father figure, and provide the guidance that Sutter needs. However, when Sutter goes to meet with him, you (and Sutter) realize that this is the worthless future that Sutter is headed towards.
Overall, like I said, the movie is a character-study of an aimless 18 year old alcoholic. It is well-directed, and well-crafted, but really not my cup of tea. I just wanted someone to punch Sutter in the face. Maybe that would have shortened the movie!
3 out of 10 – Remeber, that number is how I reacted to the movie, and does not reflect the actual quality of the film. I really didn’t like it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not quality. It is a quality film – and Ponsoldt seems to be a good director, but holy crap did I hate this movie. I really needed one of these drunken teens to be arrested for underage drinking. At least no one died. Oh - spoiler alert, no one is killed in a brutal drunk-driving accident, although someone should have been.
Bonus Video 1: Less Than Zero – older, vaguely similar.
Bonus Video 2: Chronicle – just because. See this because it’s interesting.
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews.