More Than a Teenage Dream

AP Images/Matt Sayles

The Spectacular Now easily earns the epithet of teen film, a genre known more for its box-office potential than festival and critic buzz. It has all the makings of another superficial flick—sex, booze, a teenage soap star in a leading role, and a plot borrowed from young-adult literature.

Yet as evidenced by the Grand Jury Prize it won at Sundance, the movie transcends these stereotypes and embraces the kind of realism in the 1980s’ “Brat Pack” films, many written and directed by the iconic John Hughes. By acknowledging that young-adult lives encompass more than school, parties, and puberty, Brat-Pack movies and their portrayal of disaffected youth boosted the teen film into a realm of emotionally resonant cinema that had cultural staying power. With a similar gritty authenticity and dynamic characters, as well as a novel rebuke of adolescent nostalgia, Spectacular presents a new model for the modern teen film.

Spectacular, based on the book by Tim Tharp, opens with main protagonist Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) drinking a beer while writing an overdue college admissions essay about the hardship of losing his trophy girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). A Little League dropout who is failing geometry and never goes to his part-time job at a menswear shop without a flask and “Monster Thirst” cup, Sutter possesses all the charisma of Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller and the baby-face charm of John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler (that guy who held up the boom box in Say Anything). Sutter is the life of the party, and that’s what counts in his world.

His outlook begins to change, though, when he wakes up on the lawn in front of classmate Aimee Finicky’s house, not knowing how he got there or where he left his car. Aimee (Shailene Woodley, known for her roles in The Secret Life of the American Teenager and The Descendants) comes across as much more stable than Sutter. She enjoys science fiction, attends French Club with her overbearing best friend, and thanklessly completes her apparently absentee mom’s paper route. Like the seemingly opposite Sutter and Aimee, Hughes’s characters often ranged from lovable privileged clowns (Ferris in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) to working-class teens who struggled equally with socioeconomic status and high-school romance (Andie in Pretty in Pink).

Based on the vapidity of most of today’s adolescent characters, Hollywood seems to perceive its young-adult viewers as typical self-absorbed teenagers, who, like Sutter in the beginning of the film, see life as just the “now,” not the collection and consequences of their actions. But in the vein of Hughes, director James Ponsoldt forgoes the simplistic depiction of the teen years as a completely traumatic experience or an endless party. Instead, he trusts the maturity of his young actors and the complexity of their characters to carry his narrative. Some of the movie’s best scenes are more mundane than dramatic, such as when Aimee and Sutter giggle away tension while disrobing for sex the first time or silently drink from flasks in the park. Ponsoldt, a rising name in the indie film world with one other Sundance award under his belt for Smashed (another story of love and alcoholism), masters quiet, visually candid moments.

Sutter tries to impress Aimee by reading her favorite graphic novel, but then he brings her to a party where he attempts to win back Cassidy, demonstrating that his feelings toward Aimee are initially more platonic than romantic. He could easily be the stereotypical jerk trying to turn the hopeless weirdo into Cinderella in order to win a bet with friends or make his ex jealous à la Freddy Prinze Jr.’s character in She’s All That. Even Hughes’s films often dipped into fairytale moments. In Sixteen Candles, for example, Sam shares a kiss with the crush who barely knows she exists 24 hours before the start of the film.

But Sutter is more complex. He’s a young alcoholic who, out of fear, has spent his whole life avoiding decisions except in choosing the next party. Sutter says he felt “invincible” with Cassidy, but Aimee challenges him, confronting him about his relationship with his family and his carefree attitude about his future. Aimee’s blank-slate feel at first suggests she is nothing more than the eventual key to Sutter’s unfinished essay, another “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a now-ubiquitous term coined by AV film critic Nathan Rabin to describe female characters solely written to “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” The character Summer in (500) Days of Summer—written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the same screenwriting duo for Spectacular—is one of many examples of the trope.

Aimee, though, fits into the recent cultural backlash against this stereotype. New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny’s essay about her life as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl describes its antithesis as a “person who writes her own stories, rather than a story that happens to other people.” The Spectacular Now isn’t Aimee’s story, but that doesn’t mean she lacks agency in it. When Sutter inspires her to go to Philadelphia for college despite his intention to never leave town, she develops a plan for him to go with her instead of sacrificing her dreams to stay behind. She tries to bring their stories together, not just guest-star in his.

The Spectacular Now pushes genre boundaries by striving for greater realism than the grittiest Hughes films. Simple choices such as highlighting the actors’ imperfect skin (noticeably no one, not even the pretty girl, Cassidy, wears much makeup), accomplishes this visually. Characters get hangovers and actually slur when they drink. And unlike with Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, to pick one of Hughes’s most angsty yet lovable characters, Sutter’s father issues aren’t allegorized in one compact scene (which, in Cameron’s case, ends with a crashed Ferrari). Sutter’s dad (Kyle Chandler) isn’t just inept or out of touch. He’s an addict who goes out drinking when Sutter drives three hours to see him after a decade of separation. He also stands as a lesson to his son, showing Sutter just one way his life could turn out.

Like the Brat-Pack films, Spectacular uses the narrative of a set of high schoolers to show the universality of restless and anxious young-adulthood. The film also successfully zooms out to other lives. On graduation day, Cassidy tells Sutter that she and her new boyfriend (who reveals his frustration that he can’t make Cassidy laugh like Sutter did) have decided to attend college together in California. It reminds us that Aimee and Sutter’s story is one of the many potential teen movies playing out in their world, a world complex enough on screen for us to imagine these other narratives.

Ultimately, The Spectacular Now creeps toward the reality that no one remains young and invincible. Sutter’s drunken clichés about how you can’t find life in a textbook sound as pathetic as they should, and, at prom, the high-school king arrives at a painful self-awareness. “This is as young as we’re ever going to be,” he says. Most teen films cut off before their characters move on from high school, but as Spectacular ends, Sutter, while still young, has finally finished his college essay and is ready for adulthood.

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