Monday, July 29, 2013

THE SPECTACULAR NOW: James Ponsoldt's even-better follow-up to his "Smashed"

I sure do think -- as will, I suspect, anyone who has seen all three of James Ponsoldt's full-length films: Off the BlackSmashed and THE SPECTACULAR NOW -- that this young movie-maker has a problem with alcohol. Or at least with those people who abuse it. Yet his films are so spectacularly in-the-moment-real that your concentration will remain on the wonderful characters at hand (and the fine actors who play them) rather than on any finger-wagging due to their overindulgence in "demon drink." You'll notice the booze, all right, but you will also care so much about the character who's indulging that the person will consistently trump the issue. Or, as a certain nut-job religion advises us: "Hate the sin, love the sinner." Oh, boy -- will you ever.

If indeed Mr. Ponsoldt, shown at left, is warning his audiences about the evils of alcohol, he could hardly be doing it any better, considering how very much we come to care about and want the best for most of the people "under the influence" whom we meet in his movies. Yet this filmmaker is smart enough to show them to us in their entirety; no sugar-coating here. He is also smart enough to show us how enticing that good-time feeling can be when we're under the influence; how free we feel, and how compelling is to repeat that feeling. Because the filmmaker does all this so well, especially in his latest sojourn, he keeps us pretty consistently off-balance as to, not only what might happen, but what is happening in that "spectacular" right now.

Our hero is one, Sutter Keeley (played spectacularly well by Miles Teller, above, left, of Rabbit Hole, Footloose and Project X), who likes to think he is living in the now, but who is more often in some alcohol-induced mini-haze -- from which his most recent girlfriend seems to want out. Though she is played, and very well, by Brie Larson (below, right), you'll have to wait for the upcoming Short Term 12 to see Ms Larson really get the chance to shine.

At the end of one of Miles' more spectacular hazes, he ends up on the front lawn of a school classmate, Aimee, and a bona fide, if bizarre, relationship begins. Aimee is played by Shailene Woodley (shown below and further below) who took the role of George Clooney's elder daughter in The Descendants, and the talent we noticed there was no fluke. Woodley makes Aimee such an odd, appealing, sad, struggling young woman that, as much as we care about Miles, it is she who carries the movie home.

The freshness that Ponsoldt -- together with his excellent screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (from the novel by Tim Tharp) -- provides also gives us characters, scenes and situations we're not used to seeing in "teen" movies. These work so well in deepening the movie that, by the time you're going out of the theater, you'll realize you've seen a film about teenagers in which you identify with and care for these kids more than you could possibly have imagined going in.

The supporting cast, which includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is crème de la crème, as are the technical assets on view. But it's the unusual look at kids-on-the-cusp we're able to observe that makes the movie so special. The Spectacular Now is one of the most quietly spectacular movies of the year.

The film, from A24 and running just 95 minutes, opens this Friday, August 2, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and AMC Lincoln Square and in the Los Angeles area at the Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark. Over the remaining month, the movie will open across the entire country. Click here to see all currently scheduled cities, theaters and playdates.

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