January 22, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ SUNDANCE 2013: “The Spectacular Now”


The screenplay for THE SPECTACULAR NOW, a Dramatic Competition entry at Sundance, was written by the team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote (500) Days of Summer, but the new film has none of the breezy and somewhat gimmicky visual style of that hit.  Director James Ponsoldt, instead, goes to the extreme of structuring several of the key sequences with little if any editing at all, with just one or two continuous shots.  It’s a strategy that underscores the plainspoken earnestness of the film, one of the best stories about teens since Friday Night Lights bit the dust.

Oddly, even though Ponsoldt didn’t write Spectacular Now (and it was based on a novel by Tim Tharp to begin with), the film plays in many respects like a prequel to Ponsoldt’s last Sundance entry, Smashed. There is, again, the pull of alcohol as a pleasant means of blocking out reality, and the conflict within a young woman (here Shailene Woodley’s Aimee) between responsibility and her feelings for a damaged male, Miles Teller’s Sutter.  The difference is that while Smashed was mostly concerned with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character (Winstead shows up again in Spectacular Now, part of the superb supporting cast as Sutter’s sister), the new film zeroes in on Sutter and the increasing torment he suffers when suddenly being the high school “fun guy” isn’t fun anymore.

Although Spectacular Now turns a bit conventional by the very end, for most of its length it takes an unusual, even daring slant on the teen romance story.  We’ve seen plenty of superficial jocks melt before sweet, honest girls before, but Sutter isn’t really a jock–he’s just the kid who, by way of his ever-present flask, is unfailingly good company.  And the film also delves into the damage a boy like that can do to the sweet, honest girl, even if he doesn’t mean to hurt her.

Spectacular Now does a mostly remarkable job of side-stepping cliche, with the result that when he reaches its emotional peaks late in the story, they really have a punch.  The young characters keep stepping outside of their types, in a script that for once is influenced by the Breakfast Club John Hughes, and not the Ferris Bueller.

Ponsoldt is superb with actors, and this film, like Smashed, is crammed with performers who can realize all the nuances of the script.  Apart from Woodley, who proves that her work in The Descendants was no fluke (and also her willingness to play an unglamorized teen who doesn’t turn into a CW star at the end), and Teller, little known until now, the cast includes Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler as Sutter’s parents, Bob Odenkirk (very low key) as his boss, Brie Larson as his ex and Andre Royo as a teacher.

Is there a wide audience for The Spectacular Now, a film without fast-cut musical montages, animated cutaways, or the comforts of cliche?  It would be nice to think that a film as moving and sincere as this can sell some tickets.  The film has been acquired for distribution by newcomer A24, so we’ll find out later this year.

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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."