I typically don’t like it when Oscar-worthy films open as early as September. For one thing, I’m still searching for the last open swimming pool in the area in my desperate attempt to cling to every last vestige of summer. And second, Oscar voters often forget about early-release fare by the time the awards are presented in late February. This was the fate which befell Paul Thomas Anderson’s superior “The Master” last year.
So the bottom line is I wasn’t real thrilled about returning to the theatre this early, but I was compelled to see James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now.” It stars Shailene Woodley, who was so compelling in the 2011 George Clooney flick, “The Descendants.” In that picture, she played a troubled girl dealing with several family crises. In “The Spectacular Now,” she deftly handles the good girl role, playing a high school senior who falls for a popular but ambitionless classmate, played by Miles Teller.
What I loved most about “The Spectacular Now” is that all the high school students seemed like real high school students. They didn’t strike me as twenty-somethings hired to play all-knowing, unrealistic teenagers. These kids struggle with relationships, classes and divorced parents, just the way we did when we were teens. Even sex is treated with the proper dose of uncertainty common with this age group. My only issue with the script is that the Teller character drinks more than any high school classmate I ever knew. I think we get the idea that he’s from the wrong side of the tracks without his constant desire to have an alcohol buzz.
I was also impressed with the shades of gray Ponsoldt gives to what are often stereotyped roles. For instance, Teller’s character is not simply the “bad seed.” He’s actually quite charming. And while he does struggle with at least one class, he’s not dumb. And rather than hooking up with Woodley’s character on a dare, he genuinely falls for her, slowly but surely, after being dumped by his prom queen girlfriend. Meanwhile, Woodley’s character isn’t strictly the “good girl.” She’s willing to allow herself to fall for Teller, albeit in a measured fashion, and even lets him introduce her to alcoholic beverages and eventually, sex.
Furthermore, parents actually play a role in “The Spectacular Now,” just as they did when I was that age (or when my kids were). In most teen films, parents seem absent; and when we do see them, they’re nothing more than caricatures. Teller’s parents have real depth – especially Jennifer Jason Leigh as his mother. She first appears as nothing more than a thorn in his side, but later turns out to have the pivotal scene in the entire picture as she convinces her son of his inherent worthiness. Teller’s dad is a loser, but again the character is somewhat atypical as he’s presented as a charming guy who, at one time, made a decent attempt at fatherhood.
“The Spectacular Now” has a lot going for it. I’d be surprised if the Academy remembers it come Oscar time with the possible exception of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s supporting performance. Not only was it released early, but it fizzled at the box office. In fact, it’s not even showing here on the north side anymore. But watch for this one on Netflix or at Red Box. I’m sure it will be available before the Oscars, and it’s one worth seeing. Its honesty and realism will surprise you. It’s the best teen picture I’ve seen since 2007’s “Juno.”