“The Spectacular Now” doesn’t deserve its acclaim
“The Spectacular Now” is one of the highest rated movies of the year, with a 97 percent “fresh” rating among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It premiered earlier this year to an enormous amount of praise, seemingly for avoiding the typical coming-of-age film tropes seen in countless teen movies. Critics love it because the characters in the film look and speak as if they are actually teens (rather than 30-year-old actors) and because it doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of teenage rebellion and angst.
Some of these accolades are deserved. The film does develop the misgivings of youth tenderly, without pretense or over-simplification. But it’s still a by-the-book teen movie, one that isn’t as incredible as the reviews might lead you to believe. The scores and ratings are almost too homogenous, as if several of the critics shared the same theater experience, at the same time, in a festival of some sort (Sundance?). This isn’t to say the film is poorly done, but it’s certainly a lot more average than the reviews suggest.
It begins, as so many teen movies do, with the protagonist sitting at a computer composing a college essay. This is all done through internal voiceover, in which we learn about the life and times of Sutter (Miles Teller). Sutter is this film’s Lloyd Dobler/Ferris Bueller—a charming, well-mannered slacker with a heart of gold. He’s recently broken up wiith his long-time girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), and despite beginning a new relationship with a bookish, shy girl named Aimee (Shailene Woodly), he continues to pine for Cassidy and long for the way things used to be. But Aimee and Sutter like each other, fall in love, and go to prom. Later on they take a road trip to find Sutter’s estranged father. There are shades of the typical teen romance, such as Aimee not being the type of girl Sutter usually falls for and the ending of high school being the most important moment in anyone’s life, ever. These are mixed with more after-school special notions of alcoholism and abandonment. Sutter carries a flask everywhere he goes and spends most of his days drunk, even while driving and working. No one really calls him on it, except in a few key scenes, and it’s largely explained away and forgiven because his mother works and his father is absent.
One of my issues with the film is that many of Sutter’s actions would have very real consequences, but the consequences we see aren’t very consequence-like. For a film that appears to be interested in showing a realistic teen experience, it tends to gloss over the realities of reckless behavior, just like every other teen movie.
Much of the praise “The Spectacular Now” garners stems from how it handles dialogue between the characters. It’s true that Sutter and Aimee’s speech is more authentic than most. No one banters with the witty catchphrases of a cut-rate Diablo Cody movie, but the banality of teen conversations doesn’t necessarily coincide with entertaining filmmaking. Yes, the dialogue seems more natural—but natural dialogue can be irritating to listen to. This film features gems like, “I think everyone should have dreams” and weepy declarations that “Nobody loves me!” While these might be real sentences uttered by real teenagers, it doesn’t make them interesting, nor does it reveal character with any sort of skill. Most people talk when they have nothing to say, and I’d rather a film explore the inner thoughts of the characters through good writing, even if it doesn’t represent everyday language.
The good news is that the film is very well acted. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodly have excellent chemistry and appear to effortlessly flow through the scenes. The story isn’t especially original or intriguing, but it’s functional and relatable for most people. I was struck by how uniformly American it is—there’s no real sense of place in the film. Each street, each house, every tree and rock and stone could be found almost anywhere in the U.S. It reminded me that teenagers really are the same everywhere, and that unique American landscapes are fading quickly into mini-malls and fast-food restaurants. To be honest, this revelation is more disheartening than Sutter being a drunk.
“The Spectacular Now” will soon become “The Spectacular Last Year” and although it may win some Academy Awards because it is so universally loved, it won’t necessarily deserve them. We’ve still got a few good months of Oscar-quality movies ahead of us. Let’s hope that they can outshine a run-of-the-mill teen movie.