In his under-the-radar drama Smashed, director James Ponsoldt explores the pains of coming to grips with the destructive, dead-end behavior of younger people with bright futures, laced with the effects of inebriation on their lives as a hindrance to their growth as individuals. His follow-up, The Spectacular Now, a coming-of-age drama based on the novel by Tim Tharp, finds a way of folding those themes into an environment where the fear of one's squandered future becomes even more prevalent, seen through the eyes of a flask-wielding high-schooler with earnest charm, a love for others, and little desire to strive for a better future. Recalling the teen dramas of Cameron Crowe and Peter Bogdanovich in the melancholy but hopeful romance between a troubled partier and a promising academic, Ponsoldt's film distills ambitious themes and sobering performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley into an unpretentiously expressive glimpse at their influence over one another, for better and for worse.
We're introduced to "life of the party" Sutter Keely (Teller, 21 & Over) -- a senior living with his always-gone nurse mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) -- as he halfheartedly types out a college acceptance form, retelling the story of his booze-infused breakup with an equally-extroverted and fiery girl, Cassidy (Brie Larson, 21 Jump Street). In the midst of his drunken spiral, he finds himself being awoken on a strange lawn by Aimee Finnecky (Woodley, The Descendants), a quieter and less-popular student from his class whom he really doesn't know, a study-minded girl who's become the financial and emotional foundation of her household. An unlikely bond forms between them over chats about their families and Sutter's need for a tutor, and as The Spectacular Now progresses through their courtship, the reasons behind Sutter's good-time decisions surface while he lowers his defenses. Confronted by his own emotional and mental hang-ups amid his blossoming affection for this doting girl with a promising future, the question becomes less whether Sutter can get his act together and mute his problems, but rather whether he will or not.
A downhearted, almost ominous tone rolls in on director Ponsoldt's film while we get to know Sutter more closely, ever suggesting that his downward-falling story could play out in ways some might not prefer. Warm yet truthful cinematography from Hot Fuzz photographer Jess Hall follows the borderline-alcoholic charmer around the Athens, Georgia locale as he works part-time at a men's clothing store and gets held after class for not doing his assignments, ever numbing his feelings and fueling his charisma with his refilled plastic cup. The Spectacular Now generates complex sensations around how Sutter's disposition impacts those around him, notably on the bottled-up Aimee: does he elevate her confidence by projecting his confrontational, bottle-swigging "Carpe Diem" attitude on her, or does he actually hinder her? While the film centers on how their relationship itself blossoms, its exploration of the characters is relatively one-sided towards Sutter, evaluating his darker family issues and rationale for smooth-talking his way through life.
That's not to say that Sutter and Aimee's romance isn't successful because of this sloping spotlight, because the exposed intimacy generated within their personality differences remains sincere, shrugging off stereotypes as it blossoms with lively, meaningful dialogue. The subtle gloom that Miles Teller brought to his disarming role in Rabbit Hole reemerges in Sutter, blending with the character's coolness and extroversion to embody this outgoing, troubled guy who cares deeply for others and uses alcohol as a crutch. Similarly, Shailene Woodley embodies a girl focused on studying, clubs, and science-fiction books with a refreshingly uncommon portrayal of some introverts, showing that she chooses to follow a quieter path instead of being forced down it. Amid sliding flasks, school dances, and interacting with Sutter's family, their complicated link comes across as more grounded than most other coming-of-age dramas, hinged on their mutual empathy towards one another's lives. There's hope in their infectious chemistry, despite the film's tonal suggestion warning against it.
Alas, the genuineness of The Spectacular Now heads down a road towards more cliche dramatics later on, where it forcibly bolsters those points about Sutter being a dangerous influence and the origin of his attitude dependent on alcohol and charismatic distraction. Despite a fitting and complicated performance from Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) as his estranged father, pulling back the curtain on many of the domestic mysteries hanging in the film's air, one can't help but feel frustrated that Sutter's internal issues are forced to deal with an overstated stab at cornering him in a guilty, depressive mindset, deflating some of the organic character progression. That streak of realism never breaks due to the performances, thankfully, allowing the film to spin its cautionary yarn and depict Sutter's conflicted emotional state, a person with the foresight to look after the interest of others without considering the best interests for himself. Enough's going on in this largely realistic story without working in cumbersome shock value, though.
It's hard to figure out exactly how much Sutter actually changes throughout the course of The Spectacular Now, a testament to Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's adapted script and Ponsoldt's nuanced orchestration of customary coming-of-age genre fixtures: disjointed homes, caring mentors, and moments of realization. The material clearly understands that people can't be easily quantified or willed to change, a somber but significant point to take away as the film's characters respond to Sutter's many missteps. One thing's clear, though: Sutter himself certainly feels the impact of what's happened to him across the end of his senior year, once again bringing us back to his moment in front of a computer screen as he tries to funnel his life onto paper. There are parts of his personality that he may or may not continue to evolve after the film's ambiguous yet encouraging ending, and it's up to those watching to figure out their own answers. The fact that The Spectacular Now makes one care enough to feel hopeful that he does, and worry that he might not, speaks highly of Ponsoldt's adaptation.
Video and Audio:
James Ponsoldt tried to emulate as much reality in The Spectacular Now look as he possibly could, from having his actors not wear much (if any) makeup to emphasizing the natural warmth of timeless Southern exteriors. Frequently reliable when it comes to supporting their recent batch of indie releases, Lionsgate Home Entertainment presents the often stunning 35mm-shot cinematography in an exquisite 2.35:1-framed 1080p AVC transfer, respecting the consistency and depth that Ponsoldt and Jess Hall worked to achieve. Close-ups are frequent and tight, allowing the disc's grasp of fine details to emphasize the natural texture of the actors' complexions, while capable contrast levels keep the lighting balanced and radiant. Black levels occasionally become somewhat unwieldy, noisy and fluctuating in depth during darker sequences, but they're never unsuitable. Exterior shots take moments to relish color and detail -- pops of green in grass and yellows/whites in clothing -- coming together into a hearty visualization of subtly poetic photography.
Dialogue and the film's music hallmark the strengths in this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, where crisp, distortion-free verbal delivery and proper balance against the wispy, haunting score are crucial to the film's success. There's an organic quality to the voices in The Spectacular Now that plays well with the authenticity the filmmakers aim for, but it keeps things from appearing quite as crisp as it likely could. That said, none of the spoken moments couldn't be discerned, while Miles Teller's baritone voice and Shailene Woodley's slightly-raspy alto tones charmingly flutter along the front and center channels to the lower-frequency arena where needed. The majority of the film's bass activity comes in the subtle rumble and crescendos in the music, where the added boost in high-definition clarity helps keep it clearly present yet stand-offish with the dialogue. Certain sounds effects that should be more assertive, notably with activity involving cars, flounder a bit under the pressure. Other than that, though, it's a casually engaging sound transfer.
Audio Commentary with director James Ponsoldt:
It's rare that you'll hear the director of a film openly state his initial dislike of the protagonist from a screenplay he didn't like, but that's exactly how James Ponsoldt starts his honest, appreciative commentary. Well, more accurately, he starts off by discussing how he was contacted to read the script, which leads into his narrative about how he felt a fondness growing towards the script and how he felt compelled to bring the film to his Athens, GA hometown. This creates a personal link that becomes prevalent throughout the rest of his commentary, where he discusses Shailene Woodley's notes about her character, how he felt about shooting at his rival high-school, and how he navigated the Georgia weather. He also touches on his fondness for the scene involving Sutter and Aimee's first kiss, while also openly addressing their intimacy later down the line. Ponsoldt stays insightful and open with his comments, and a pleasure to hear.
Aside from a hefty collection of Deleted Scenes (20:30, 16x9 HD) that back up the claims later made about there being a much longer cut of the film, Lionsgate have also included about twenty minutes about The Making of The Spectacular Now (21:30, 16x9 HD) that includes a rich collection of interviews and behind-the-scenes shots that paint a pretty clear picture of the film's construction. Novelist Tim Tharp, director James Ponsoldt, his writers and actors get together to touch on common topics, doing so in unpretentious ways. Separated into four categories -- Inception, Cast, Voice, and Real -- it's a standard but lucid glimpse into the few areas where Ponsoldt's commentary didn't go into quite enough detail, though some of the content does kinda overlap. The Blu-ray also comes with an HD Digital Copy through the Ultraviolet service.
In just about every area where coming-of-age stories and teen romances can falter, James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now gets something at least marginally right. The director does so by keeping things as simple and authentic as possible in his adaptation of Tim Tharp's novel, where the authentic chemistry between two self-aware actors portray a sociable, quasi-alcoholic guy whose lack of forward-thinking ambition gets confronted by an educated introvert. Instead of message-driven drama wagging its finger at booze, intimacy, and education, the script allows for Sutter's faults to shape into a neutral, compassionate rendering of a teenager who doesn't know what to do with either his complicated past or his unpromising future, let alone the unlikely girl who began steering his present in a different direction. Navigating themes involving estranged parents, building confidence, and self-destructive tendencies, the relationship between Sutter and Aimee beautifully ebbs and flows with his experiences, ever vague whether the outcome will be solemn or celebratory. Lionsgate's Blu-ray will looks and sound great for the viewing or two the film should garner, and comes equipped with a delightful commentary and a meaty dose of making-of content. Highly Recommended.