May 29, 2013

The Nuanced Alcoholism Of THE SPECTACULAR NOW #IFFB2013

(I knew when I started this project that I'd be spending more and more time in movie theaters all over Boston, but what didn't occur to me was the number of great local festivals I'd be able to attend.  I was able to catch two fantastic films, Cheap Thrills and I Declare War, at the Boston Underground Film Festival pretty early on and about a month later I stumbled onto the Independent Film Festival Boston.  I ended up spending most of the week there at the Somerville Theater, a gorgeous old movie house that I'd passed by a few times but never actually gone inside.  IFFB was not only very efficiently run, but it was an absolute blast.  I'm already excited for next year's festival.)
"This is the youngest we'll ever be."
When it comes to teenage drinking, I can't exactly speak from a lot of experience.  I never drank in high school for two reasons:

a) I was constantly busy with theater rehearsals, speech team and A/V club.  That leads me directly to:
b) my friends an I were (are) all huge nerds.

We didn't have big drunken house parties.  We watched Starship Troopers and played Taboo.  The only such party I ever went to was on Senior Skip Day, and I was one of about three sober people there. Booze never held much attraction for me until I got to college, where house parties were the order of the day, and even then I was never one for pounding beers.  The fact that I went to Emerson, a small school full of film and theater kids probably had something to do with that.  My girlfriend went to Boston College, where parties consisted of a refrigerator packed with nothing but Natural Ice.  (PBR would have been too classy.)  Emerson parties were filled with handles of Jack Daniels, Jose Cuervo and Southern Comfort.  The only common thread was the Solo cups.  These two drastically different environments made my relationship with alcohol fairly inconsistent for the beginning of my college career.  Thankfully I ended up moving in with two guys who appreciated really good beer, so I drank more to experience interesting new flavors and brew styles than simply to get plastered.  Except for my 21st birthday.  That was a shitshow...

Depicting teenage drinking on camera can be very tricky, as it's all too easy to fall into the quicksand of melodrama. Angry shouting matches with desperate parents, tearful girlfriends/boyfriends unable to help the person they love, a promising life pissed away in a bottle of whiskey and, of course, the inevitable tragic car accident.  So kudos to writer Scott Neustadter and director James Ponsoldt for crafting a story (adapted from the novel by Tim Tharp) that flirts with all of these elements but instead favors characters which feel very grounded in reality.  It's not about "the big moments" but instead about the million small ones that ultimately add up to make us the people we choose to be.

The story centers on the end of high school for Sutter Keely, a lovable mess of a guy who's constantly drinking while coasting on his quick wit and easy charisma.  With graduation on the horizon, his longtime girlfriend Cassidy finally decides she needs to be with someone who's got some direction in his life and breaks it off with Sutter.  He has a little too much to drink at a party soon after and ends up passing out on a stranger's lawn, only to be discovered by the sweet, smart but shy Aimee Finicky.  Sutter helps her finish her mom's paper route and the two become friendly, even more so when he realizes that she can help keep him from failing his last math class.  (Awesomely, his math teacher is Bubbles from The Wire.)  The friendship grows into an unlikely romance, with each bringing out the best in each other as they struggle to figure out their futures, both with and without each other.

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley received a special jury prize at Sundance for their work here and it's well deserved.  They've taken characters that feel like familiar teen-archetypes on paper and breath a rich, multi-faceted life into both Sutter and Aimee.  Moreover, The Spectacular Now approaches all the drinking in a manner that is both simple effective without feeling overblown.*  This is not a movie about alcoholism so much as a movie about a character who happens to be an alcoholic.  Sutter almost always has a drink in hand and a perpetual buzz, but like any good alcoholic he's rarely falling down drunk.  It never feels like drinking is being glorified, nor does it feel like a portentous specter hanging over his every action, forcing the audience to sit there for ninety minutes waiting for the other shoe to drop.  (While there's no Big Horrible Incident that the plot hinges upon, there is a moment on the roadside that looks at first like it's going to become just that.  Thankfully it's mostly a fake out.)  Instead of slowly spinning out of control, Sutter makes a series of heartbreaking choices.  There's one scene with Bob Odenkirk that's so simple and honest, yet it feels like a punch to the gut.  At the same time, as part of her adoration of her new love, Aimee starts drinking along with Sutter and it actually gives her a level of self-confidence she'd been lacking.  It's not a hollow, boozy bravado - we never really see her get drunk.  But she finds the courage to stand up to her deadbeat mom and do the kinds of things she'd never have been able to before getting involved with Sutter.  Aimee clearly doesn't have the same relationship with alcohol that Sutter does and she serves as a measured counter-balance, presenting the teen drinking experience in a very balanced way.  Ponsoldt doesn't shy away from the drama of alcoholism, but it all feels very down to earth and never devolves into a morality play.  I wish more movies were this nuanced.

Also, bonus points for using Kyle Chandler in such a way that I didn't spend the entirety of his scenes thinking, "It's Coach Taylor!"

*Ponsoldt's previous film, Smashed, focuses more on the destructive nature of alcoholism by focusing on characters that are a little bit older.  I'm looking forward to comparing the two.

Title: The Spectacular Now
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larsen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Independent Film Festival Boston

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