Teenagers often experience extreme feelings of self-doubt and undergo crises of finding their true identities and meaningful relationships as they go through the life-altering transition of applying to, and enrolling in, college. These coming-of-age explorations of trying to find your rightful place in society and someone who truly loves and accepts you is endearingly told in director James Ponsoldt’s new comedy-drama, ‘The Spectacular Now,’ which opens on Friday in select New York theaters. While the film’s main character, underachieving high school senior Sutter Keely, puts on a carefree persona for his classmates, teachers and family, the story expertly follows him on his emotional journey to find real meaning, love and acceptance in his life.
‘The Spectacular Now’ follows Sutter (Miles Teller) as he lives in the here and now, and has no real plans for his future. A budding alcoholic, Sutter always keeps his flask on hand, whether he’s working at his job at a men’s clothing store or the life of his local teenage party. His life unexpectedly changes when his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), ends their relationship and begins dating their student body president, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi).
After waking up on a stranger’s lawn by one of his classmates, Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), during her newspaper route, Sutter unpredictably begins to develop romantic feelings for her. While Aimee has dreams and hopes for her future, Sutter, who continuously lives in a world of self-delusion, doesn’t allow himself to become too emotionally attached. But after exploring why his parents’ (Jennifer Jason Leight and Kyle Chandler) marriage didn’t last, bonding with his sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and how genuine a romantic relationship can truly be when Aimee fully opens up to him, Sutter begins to fully appreciate the positive aspects in his life.
Much like his previous soul-searching family comedy-drama, last year’s ‘Smash,’ Ponsoldt once again courageously and relevantly explored the harrowing and emotional obstacles that both drive relationships apart and bring people who truly care about each other back together. The director bravely channeled the self-critical cynicism of one’s life mainly seen in older adults who have lived through numerous hardships into a teen with a promising potential to succeed if he applied himself in Sutter. Despite having some fickle character flaws that made him a damaged, unreliable protagonist, such as blindly blaming his mother for the destruction of their family, Sutter is the ideal driving force in exploring the drastic motivations and feelings of why a person chooses to self-destruct.
‘The Spectacular Now’s production designer, Linda Sena, creatively and effectively helped emphasize the agonizing and self-destructive feelings both Sutter and Aimee feel as they both contend with what they perceive to emotionally damaging home lives. Sena cleverly created a seemingly claustrophobic home for Sutter and his mother that lacked any true personal belongings. The aloofness that has developed between the two after Sutter began blaming his mother for his father leaving them is naturally emphasized in the small, dark kitchen, where he makes an effort to not respond to his mother’s attempts to bond with him.
Aimee’s more promising belief in her dreams and hopes of building an independent life for herself was flatteringly showcased in her cluttered, emotionally detached home that Sena created. When Sutter visits Aimee at her house to study for his geometry class, he walks into a chaotic living room with her younger brother’s toys and belongings thrown around, which subtly emphasizes their mother’s lack of maternal guiding for the two of them. However, as Sutter as he enters Aimee’s bedroom for the first time, he rightly becomes amazed at how she can overcome her adversity with her mother. From her creative drawings on the walls to her stack of sci-fi and mystery novels and graphic novels, Sena easily transforms Aimee’s world, to showcase how she has her own thoughts and interests, separate from her mother.
The comedy-drama’s cinematographer, Jess Hall, also imaginatively accentuated the growing trust between Sutter and Aimee as their relationship begins to grow, as well as the protagonist’s emerging fear of truly allowing anyone to fully see the person he’s become growing up. Hall effectively and captivatingly switched from highlighting Sutter and Aimee in bright, natural lighting when the two were in endearing and positive situations, to using dark, intimidating shadows that emphasize their moments of true pain.
When Aimee first discovers a hung-over Sutter on the lawn when they first met, for example, she was enchantingly engulfed in morning sunlight to showcase their potential blossoming relationship. But when she finally reveals to him her true feelings about their relationship, Hall starkly surrounded the two characters in Sutter’s dark car as they were traveling home on an unfamiliar road. The setting perfectly reiterates their mutual unease of not knowing where their relationship is going.
‘The Spectacular Now’ is a daring, modernly significant exploration of the at times traumatic and emotional obstacles that both drive meaningful, established relationships apart, and ultimately bring people who truly care about each other back together during times of need. The touching, relatable story expressively chronicles Sutter’s extreme motivations and feelings that lead to his self-destruction. Sena’s emotionally inspired production designs, combined with Hall’s innovative cinematography, helped showcase the exploring the drastic motivations and feelings of why a person chooses to alienate themselves during extreme times of emotional hardship.