Sunday, November 29, 2015         


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A 'spectacular' take on young love

Viewers will be completely immersed in the story of two high school seniors figuring out life and each other

By Michael Sragow

Orange County Register


"The Spectacular Now" is zesty, funny, sad and wise beyond its characters' years. It features the most complex and moving portraits of high school seniors since the final season of TV's "Friday Night Lights." The dramatic form is commonplace. The direction, content and performances are wonderful.

The movie tracks an end-of-school romance between a cool guy named Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and a shy girl named Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), with surprises that make it distinctive right from the beginning.

Rated: R
Opens today at Kahala 8

Sutter has won friends and girlfriends as "the life of the party," whether the party is a class-wide bash or a group of three or four. But there's something off in his psyche. He lets a prized relationship with the warm, beautiful Cassidy (Brie Larsen) derail because of a ridiculous misunderstanding. He avoids confrontation because he overprizes good feeling. He's also addicted to booze.

Aimee, for her part, isn't merely a "nice" girl. She takes up the household slack for her widowed mother and sullen younger brother (an older sister has moved away) while harboring dreams of going to college in distant Philadelphia. (The original book was set in Okla­homa; the movie was filmed in Athens, Ga. One of the movie's many small triumphs is its ability to evoke a persuasive provincial atmosphere even if the setting is really Anywhere, U.S.A.)

Sutter and Aimee are far more entertaining and intriguing than perfectly matched opposites. "The Spectacular Now" is a comedy-drama about the ecstasies and risks of imperfect young love. Sutter offers Aimee something she never knew she needed: intimate attention that leads to self-awareness. He also coaxes Aimee into drinking and loosening up, then realizes that his brand of breeziness is bad for her.

Aimee, in turn, sees the core of substance beneath Sutter's amiability. She goads Sutter into confronting his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) about family secrets and demanding that she tell him the truth about the husband and father she allegedly threw out of their house. Whether Sutter can handle the truth remains an open question.

What makes the movie casually profound is how the characters grow to embody conflicting principles as well as clashing types. Aimee turns out to be a master planner: She plots out her life as if her future were a covert operation. Sutter is a "Keep on Truckin'" kind of guy. He glorifies "living in the moment." He doesn't realize that he's always shading the moment into something positive by lubricating it with alcohol or generating good vibes at the expense of deeper feelings.

These days it's daring for a movie to question how "spectacular" a "now" can be if you haven't made a solid life for yourself.

One measure of a movie artist is the ability to immerse an audience in "the spectacular now" and simultaneously build each "now" moment into a complete vision of life. The way director James Ponsoldt and his screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, shape Tim Tharp's novel, the transition from adolescence to young adulthood becomes a series of hurdles that the characters sometimes clear and sometimes topple. Yet there's nothing melodramatic about the victories and setbacks. They're all part of the daily show.

It's perfect that Sutter and Aimee meet when he passes out drunk on her lawn after Brie breaks up with him. She takes him on her early-morning newspaper route. (It's really her mom's route, but Aimee covers for her and gets a pittance for it.) Aimee learns that Sutter can make almost anything fun. The question is, Can he also make anything last?

Teller's performance as Sutter is a high-flying act of creative imagination. He modulates the speed of Sutter's easygoing walk and friendly spiel. Through the changeable intensity of his eyes you see how Sutter puts feelers out to defuse uncomfortable situations. The film is suspenseful because we yearn for him to use his gifts to help himself.

In a superbly collaborative performance, Woodley shows us exactly what Aimee loves about him. In a nonstop flow of subtle reactions, she cues us to the generosity she sees at the root of his affability. But Woodley doesn't soften Aimee's journey to self-knowledge. She can be painfully naive, exulting when he pre­sents her with her own personalized flask.

Ponsoldt follows them as closely and fluidly as a desirable third wheel. He knows just when to let the outer world intrude on them at a keg party or a prom and when to home in on them tenderly, notably in a sexual initiation of unsurpassed sensitivity.

Ponsoldt is equally skilled with the rest of the cast. Kyle Chandler plays brilliantly against type as Sutter's dad, a man without a fatherly bone in his body. Jennifer Jason Leigh, as his mom, has rarely been so free of affectation.

Ponsoldt's gift with actors can't be separated from his skill as a portraitist. The parallel between Chandler framed in a saloon window and Woodley in a bus station's glass storefront resonates in your heart and mind long after the movie fades to black. For once an ambiguous ending is perfect. This film leaves you satisfied yet hungering for more.

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