Dir. James Ponsoldt. Starring Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
I was listening to an old episode of Screen Drafts the other day, the one on Films About Filmmakers, and one of the guest drafters was James Ponsoldt. I was really taken with him. I’ll let you listen to the episode (which he does with the person who cut The Spectacular Now, Darrin Novarro), but I thought he chose some great movies and had some other great movies on tap, his reasoning was very interesting, and the way he spoke it’s clear how knowledgeable he is about movies. It made The Spectacular Now make even less sense to me than it had before, because I honestly have a hard time thinking of a better example of a movie that exemplifies all of my problems with the coming-of-age genre as it stands in this decade, and it makes me sad that this person who I really liked hearing from was someone who, on the basis of this picture, I would never want to see another movie from. It’s not entirely on him, obviously. The screenwriters for this movie, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, have crafted another one of their quietly sexist scripts, but that also kills me on a personal level. Weber chewed out Adam “Dave” Silver in person about the NBA league office’s role in helping the Sixers jettison onetime GM Sam Hinkie, which makes him something of an icon for me. Ponsoldt and Weber are sort of the opposite of regular problematic favs for me: I hate their work and like them as people. Anyway, I say what I’m about to say next in the context of feeling fondly about the people involved in the making of this movie.
The Spectacular Now has a tell, as most other coming-of-age movies from the recent past have a tell. That tell is that the kids don’t use technology at all. The only movie that’s come out in the last ten years that I’ve seen which really understands just how hooked kids are to their phones is Eighth Grade. The reason this is a tell is sort of like that stat you hear about how people who brush their teeth twice a day live longer than people that don’t: it’s all about correlation. If the kids in a contemporary coming-of-age story are not essentially cyborgs, then the filmmakers are not really telling a story about teenagers, much less teenagers who belong to a cohort that the filmmakers understand. The Spectacular Now uses a desktop computer a few times—protagonist Sutter (Teller) is working on a college essay, he gets a chat from ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson)—but even what happens there could have happened without any Internet whatever. Sutter could be drafting on paper; Cassidy could have called the house. When the characters are that disinterested in their phones, when the plot could genuinly have gone exactly the same way if they set the movie in 1953 instead of 2013, then you know it’s not really about the teenagers. The men behind the curtain—Gen Xers, presumably raised on the poisonous pap of John Hughes—basically find these kids grist for the mill instead of beings to empathize with, and so we get a voyeuristic, sappy little story about a teen with ostensibly adult problems which has absolutely no urgency or sense of place. If it’s not really about teenagers as we understand them, then why is it a coming-of-age movie at all? This is the first major structural problem with the movie, and it’s one that I’ve seldom seen overcome. (People who have found me at my tetchiest on this blog may remember that this genre of inquiry is one I aimed at La La Land a while back. If you have to ask why the movie belongs to whatever genre, that’s not promising!)
The other problem with the movie, a problem that Neustadter and Weber absolutely had in their breakout feature, (500) Days of Summer, is that they have no talent for integrating women into the plot without making them props. This is not me trying to show you what a rightminded feminist I am. This is about how the lack of representation creates bad art, and how men who basically see women as plot points as opposed to like, y’know, human beings with autonomy, create dull and useless characters. In the last twentyish minutes of The Spectacular Now, things go south real quick. Sutter finally meets his father (Kyle Chandler), who everyone has been telling him ran out on the family and was always a bum, but Sutter clings to the good memories he had with his dad when he was little and has never let go of them. Meeting his father, predictably, is disillusioning. His dad set up a time for Sutter to drive up to meet him, but appears to have forgotten all about the date, and when the three of them—Sutter has brought angelic girlfriend Aimee (Woodley) along—go to a bar, most of Tommy’s attentions are set on a waitress there. He admits pretty freely to his son that he left, that he wasn’t cut out for the whole family life. Realizing that his idolization of his father was a mistake and that his mistreatment of his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in particular was a mistake, Sutter begins to spiral on the drive back. He insists that Aimee leave his car in the middle of nowhere because he, who is screaming about how terrible he is, intends to protect her from him, which is doubly true, seeing as he almost hit another car while he was fighting with her and distracted. She pleads with him to reconsider, because she loves him and he’s not his dad and so on; ultimately she gets out of the car, and then she gets run over.
It’s a shocking moment. Genuinely draws a gasp. Within ten minutes, it’s clear that Aimee is not only going to make it, but she’s going to get out of the situation with just a broken arm and, if she weren’t an automaton, probably a lifetime of horrifying memories. (Aside from how this movie treats Aimee as if she’s invisible if Sutter’s not there to look at her, what kind of movie puts all this dramatic weight on a moment just to say, “Actually, this doesn’t really matter all that much” within a few minutes? Did Ryan Murphy ghostwrite this?) Aimee forgives Sutter for all the terrible things he said and for forcing her out of the car in the middle of nowhere onto a highway where, once again, she got hit by another car. There are women who have been made literal saints who didn’t have that kind of insta-forgiveness ready and waiting. It is the culmination of Aimee never being a person. She has lots of characteristics that don’t mean all that much: she’s nice, she’s smart, she’s responsible, but it’s the kind of stuff you tell your parents about your girlfriend when you’re three dates in. Her father died a while back, but she is not graced by the filmmakers with the demons that make Sutter
interesting the main character. Her mom is not nearly as supportive and serious as Sutter’s is, but that doesn’t give her anything to get upset about, apparently. In a scene where Sutter basically bullies her into drinking from the flask he’s attached to, he also basically bullies her into expressing her frustration with her mom. It’s the kind of deal that you can’t imagine turning down yourself: he gets the best of your devotion and affection as you try to heal him, and in return he lets you know it’s okay to be mad at your mother. It’s not just that this is sexist, which of course it is, but it’s that this total disinterest in the movie’s second-most important character is story suicide. From what Sutter needs to wipe his tears away to what he fires his semen off into, there’s nothing that Aimee does in this movie that a Kleenex couldn’t have done just as well. When the number-two character in a movie is there just to do the emotional shitwork and nothing else, that saps conflict from the story. It saps complex characterization from the story. And God knows there’s not enough about Sutter to be interesting enough to carry this movie. If Sutter was a girl who whined and self-pitied and drank her way through this movie the way Sutter the boy does, this would be a Lifetime movie instead of pretending to be some kind of bildungsroman.
The closest thing this movie has to a woman character who isn’t a pure stereotype is Sutter’s sister, Holly (Winstead); to be clear, everyone in this movie, male or female, is playing some kind of stereotype, but Winstead is the only person in the movie who doesn’t appear to have been totally ruined by it. (Seriously, I have never seen Kyle Chandler this bad. It is criminal to do whatever this material did to Kyle Chandler. This movie is also, with the benefit of hindsight, practically a farm system for future A24 darlings, from Larson to a briefly seen Kaitlyn Dever. And it wastes just about all of them!) Holly has something which virtually no one else seems to have in The Spectacular Now, and that is perspective. While her mother is wary of letting Sutter have any kind of contact with his dad, Holly seems to recognize that the only thing which will crush Sutter’s puppyish devotion to the dad he didn’t have is to get the short sharp shock of meeting the man himself. Although she’s married up (and a little ostentatiously at that), it’s also clear that she hasn’t lost her comportment or her humanity. The scene where she gives Sutter their dad’s contact information after trying to convince him that their mom has actually done a pretty good job is the only one in the movie that didn’t feel like the worst screeching from the world’s tiniest violin.