Sundance '13: 'The Spectacular Now' is Sweet, Honest & Outstanding
by Alex Billington
January 19, 2013
When it comes to Sundance films, I'm admittedly partial to coming-of-age dramas. Many of them that have premiered here over the years I've fallen in love with, but as we get new coming-of-age films every year, the stories have to evolve and stay unique in order to remain fresh. The latest outstanding, memorable, fall-in-love-with coming-of-age drama of Sundance 2013 is The Spectacular Now, directed by James Ponsoldt of Smashed from last year's Sundance, written by Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter of 500 Days of Summer, adapting from Tim Tharp's novel. Ponsoldt is easily one of my favorite up-and-coming directors.
Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now is a deeply layered, indie romantic comedy, coming-of-age alcoholism story all wrapped up in one. It's sweet, it's endearing, it's charming, it's emotional, it's moving, it's honest, it's brilliant, it's thoughtful. It's about so much more than what it shows on the surface, and is just as complex as the characters are, evolving as it progress just as they do. It never resorts to cliches, it never takes the easy way out, and it has a momentum that keeps pushing the story forward at a smooth rate, never too fast or too slow. While I still love Smashed, Ponsoldt shows that he matures as a filmmaker each film, which is why I can't wait to follow his career from here. But for now, it's all about being in the "Spectacular Now."
Actor Miles Teller (seen in Project X, Footloose) stars as Sutter, a popular high school senior finishing up his last few weeks. He's awoken one morning, after passing out drunk on a stranger's lawn, by the adorable Aimee Finicky, played by Shailene Woodley (seen in The Descendants), and that's when the real story begins. From here we follow as their relationship develops into something wonderful, not just the typical sappy hookup, but there's something much deeper here. Both characters have so much more beneath their skin, and thankfully it spends time exploring those depths in an affecting way throughout the second half.
While Ponsoldt said at the Q&A that this wasn't on purpose or even the focus of the story, The Spectacular Now is his third feature film that deals with alcoholism. Between Smashed and now this, Ponsoldt makes some of the best films about alcoholism and the realities of struggling with it. The way it addresses it isn't heavy-handed and they never hammer home any message, beyond showing what it can do to someone (in this case, Sutter's father). Maybe it all perfectly aligns with my own feelings on alcoholism, but out of all the movies I've seen about it, these have left the strongest lasting impression on me, mostly due to the way Ponsoldt handles the subtleties and intricacies of the issue. I want everyone to see his films because of this.
There are countless reasons why I'm so fond of director James Ponsoldt, but the most important are: that he's able to evoke phenomenal but honest and endearing performances out of his actors; and tell a story that has an immense amount of emotion and heart, yet is still entertaining. The balance of his own sensibilities and fervent focus on the characters and story are what make his movies so memorable. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are phenomenal, along with the supporting cast: Kyle Chandler, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. This should be Teller's big breakout, deservingly so.
Alex's Sundance Rating: 9 out of 10