Every once in a while, a moving asseveration comes barreling your way through the routines of diurnal life. In my case, yesterday’s unexpectedly stirring experience resulted from a long chain of quotidian events. Forgoing my usual desire to remain bedridden until 10 a.m., it all began with a sudden spurt of productivity at 7:30 in the morning. Hopping out of bed with a vigor my body hasn’t demonstrated since Saint Nick still existed, I got right down to business and washed the sand-steeped vestments that comprised my suitcase while vacationing at Newport beach, entered a juried gallery exhibition on the subject of portraiture, conducted an array of business calls that my indolent-self would have delayed, safeguarded my bank accounts against the Target hacking fiasco, rendezvoused at the grocery store, and ventured to Victoria’s Secret to exchange a blind pity buy I’d made after receiving word that Steve Job’s infantry of Geniuses couldn’t salvage my fried laptop. Because my newfound productivity was so potent, I then decided to take up my neglected hobby of drawing for the first time since completing a festively gruesome Christmas gift that parodied The Walking Dead. Avid illustration led to a late night of BBC mysteries, and watching Mark Williams of Mr. Weasley fame merge Catholic priesthood with amateur sleuthing soon segued into one of OPB’s film critic programs. Thus, at the very end of my long day, it was this adventitious sequence of causality that ultimately introduced me to The Spectacular Now.
I had never heard of The Spectacular Now before, but with my detachment from zeitgeist culture that hardly comes as a surprise. After conducting some curiosity-fueled research and interrogating my movie database boyfriend, I learned that the film’s reception had deemed it “a slightly better than average coming-of-age film.” This response, coupled with the OPB critics’ repeated comparisons to The Way Way Back (a story that only cultivated grins and furrowed brows as it strove for profoundness), made me question whether The Spectacular Now was actually worthwhile. But when restlessness prompted me to watch it at 2 a.m., I was pleasantly surprised by a genuinely resonant narrative: one of those rare, arresting movie experiences that we’re lucky to encounter in a film era where unoriginality runs rampant amidst an endless procession of sequels and remakes.
As its average reception suggests, The Spectacular Now isn’t for everybody, and anyone whose stomach turns at the thought of teenage insecurities, judgment calls, and hormones would be wise to avoid this film. Considering my personal retrospection on the roller coaster that commences at thirteen and keeps you dipping and diving until you’re twenty, I regarded The Spectacular Now as one of the most honest film depictions of teenage sentiment I’ve seen to date, and was very grateful that someone finally endeavored to do it right.
The film starts out in typical teen-flick fashion à la She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You. Our protagonist Sutter Keely serves as both a party animal and wounded recipient of a recent break-up, two stereotypes that pervade the coming-of-age genre for their existing veracity. As the diegesis advances, Sutter’s preoccupation with his ex is gradually sidelined by an interest in his humble classmate Aimee Finecky. While the OPB critics dubbed Aimee “the quiet girl,” I would argue that the original author and screen adapter devised a character refreshingly atypical of Hollywood’s teenage pigeonholes. From my perspective, Aimee straddled the archetypal barrier between solitary academia and the whim to experience new phenomena, just as a real teenager exhibits contradictory mannerisms. Not to mention, it was nice to see a character who laughed her way through her dialogue just as persistently as I laughed my way through my entire institutionalized education. Once Sutter and Aimee’s courtship comes to fruition, the film turns to examine another relationship, that of our main character and his absentee father. Subsequently, we witness an estranged 18-year-old become increasingly entrenched in the pathos of inherited alcoholism, subject his relationships to an utter disdain for the future, and ultimately face the crux of how to approach the “now.”
The plot is no revolutionary tour de force by any stretch of the imagination, but the way in which the filmmakers divulge this prosaic concept is immensely effective. The critics discussing the film remarked that cinematic analyses of teenage experience are becoming more frank and relatable, citing The Perks of Being a Wallflower as an exemplary character study. In my opinion, The Spectacular Now takes human verisimilitude to a whole new level by evading the flawlessness coveted in celebrities like Logan Lerman and Emma Watson and instead presenting a cast that looks so natural you might as well be watching a documentary. The last time I was this impressed by the film industry’s stab at reality was when the latest Star Trek franchise allowed Chris Pine’s pockmarked complexion to fill screens in high definition. But even then they had Pine’s pre-established sex appeal to justify such tight cinematography. In The Spectacular Now, makeup was mostly foregone in surrender to the Georgia heat that would have melted it off, and in an uncommon scenario, we’re free to scrutinize scars, pores, double chins, and ultimately the unique beauty of real human visages.
It is this visual candor and the equally credible performances by the film’s principal actors Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley that result in a tangible, recollective look at youth. It’s a shame that my first exposure to Woodley was the trailer for Divergent, in which we’re expected to believe that this unthreateningly skinny girl could aid an ass-kicking insurgent squad while decked out in false eyelashes and thick slabs of concealer befitting children’s beauty pageants and the aging Southern belles who “jog” Forsyth park in hot pink sweatsuits and teased up-dos. If my familiarity with The Spectacular Now had preceded said trailer, I could have saved myself some initial cynicism, revering Woodley as a thoroughly endearing actress whose conjunction with Teller’s charisma yields palpable on-screen chemistry.
Fortunately for those of us with flighty attention spans, this is not your typical Mandy Moore and Shane West love story. True to its sense of authenticity, Sutter’s newfound feelings for Aimee don’t drastically alter his character, and their relationship is periodically marred by an ongoing reverence for his former girlfriend and the assertive asides he makes to a buddy that he’s “just giving this girl a first boyfriend experience.” Where Aimee’s concerned, it broke my heart to watch her fall victim to the rapid stages of First Serious Boyfriend Syndrome, an ailment that can be very detrimental if the first serious boyfriend is emotionally unavailable, infatuated with a previous girlfriend, and prone to abusive behaviors inherited by no fault of his own, all of which define my first serious relationship to a T and serve as further evidence of this film’s cathartic impact.
Examining The Spectacular Now from a critical perspective, there were a few sensationalistic scenes that took me out of the otherwise pragmatic depiction of adolescence. And don’t worry parents, not all senior girls who become helplessly besotted with the school’s resident Bacchus start taking casual swigs from engraved flasks. I also have to admit that some of the dialogue was a bit trite, but overall these clichés reinforce the fact that the characters are in the awkward throes of high school, a period where mentally engaging conversation is few and far in between. Despite this minor limitation, every moment of teenage discomfort, joviality, and sorrow is illustrated perfectly, reinforcing the fact that high school truly is a lodestone for insecurities, superficial behaviors, and the drive to find your personal definition amidst a throng of amorphous identities. Comparably, my own high school experience was riddled with self-centered ephemera and laughably awkward anecdotes, such as the many times I was seated behind one of my boyfriends in Advanced Algebra II and found myself repulsed by the fact that his hands looked like rubber whenever they lay motionless on the desk before him. Or the way I consistently vacillated between extremely loud, obnoxious tomfoolery and respectfully silent and diligent studiousness. I even used to pour serious effort into keeping my eyes wide open at all times to reap compliments about how attractively large my peepers were, and can clearly remember the day I opened my eyelids to their natural resting position and thought to myself, “Why does this feel strangely comfortable?” Lastly, I would be remiss to exclude the hilarious occasion on which I finally succeeded in ensnaring a crush of many months by taking him on a date in my dad’s wholly unsexy Astro Van.
The fact that The Spectacular Now transported me back to the emotions of youth and evoked so many parallel memories speaks to its powerful effectiveness. In striving for an organic ambience, this film melds the universally visceral experience of growing up and harboring raw feelings for others with a very personal story about the perceived absence of love. Not only does the visible heat of the Georgia landscape appeal to my personal ideologue of living in Savannah, but the many dimensions the filmmakers have imbued in their characters allow you to identify with, or become engrossed in, or harbor sympathy for the candid nature of human experience. It’s not often that I see myself, my former boyfriends, and my high school cohort reflected so frankly through the frames of a film, but thanks to the detailed attention paid to actuality, The Spectacular Now proved to be quite the sincere and poignant mirror.
This morning, I woke up naturally at 7:30, blindly snagged myself on my boyfriend’s fan, woke the entire apartment complex when it came crashing down, and got to thinking about decades.
Thus far, I’ve only lived through two full decades, but in that short twenty-year span it’s insane how many things have evolved (and not just the things attributed to Steve Jobs’ tyrannical ingenuity). Since the 90s, cell phones have diminished in size from the hulking Monarch brick Agent Dana Scully had to pull a 3-mile antennae from before she could address her urgent callers, to the boxy Nokia that went off in my fifth grade class with no penalty (because my sister and I were the only children in the country who had cell phones in 2001), and finally to the streamlined smartphone in every modern four-year-old’s Gymboree shorts (although, if the increasing size of the iPhone is any indication, looks like we’ll be right back there with 90s FBI setbacks in a fortnight). CDs swept in to antiquate cassette technology and just as quickly yielded their lionization to MP3s. Pig tails, butterfly clips, and crimpers dissipated with the stardom of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Melissa Joan Hart. Britney Spears riled up mothers about teen inappropriateness, shaved her head, and sought out Autotune to salvage her career, and the formerly hirsute Hanson became a symbol of ignominy that those of us over twenty continue to joke about in embarrassment. Pop culture drama morphed from Corey and Topanga’s relationship to Camille Grammer’s Real Housewives divorce, and lovable little Nano Pets segued into some really angry birds.
So many definitive constituents seem to be jilted with each passing decade that one can only wonder what will characterize our current decade for future generations. Will the ever-increasing speed of technological advancement continue to make things passé so quickly that we’ll hardly retain anything to attribute to this decade? And what will people even call this time period? The teens? We certainly haven’t made things easy for ourselves, a fact that might explain why contemporary pop culture seems so keen on reincarnating the past. We move with such rapidity toward an indiscernible future that we practically necessitate the familiarity gleaned from Kanye West’s 80s riffs, period pieces like Madmen and Downton Abbey, and the Cary Grant chic channelled by Justin Timberlake and pre-Don Jon Joseph Gordon-Levitt. With all our forward progression, it seems we just can’t resist the urge to look backwards.
Personally, despite the groans of protest from both my boyfriend and my mom, I would have loved to have lived in the 80s. In lieu of the spiraling 90s, the 80s were a time period that granted you the freedom to wear your hair as big and as teased as you wanted without being compared to Snooki, a larger Bono and B52s fan base to network with and firsthand access to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” music video, and the ability to attend beach pier parties featuring shirtless, long-haired saxophonists akin to Timmy Cappello in The Lost Boys. I would have danced my way down city avenues Cyndi Lauper-style, River Phoenix’s portrayal of Chris Chambers would have stolen my heart (as if it didn’t in this day and age), and I’d never leave the house without a pair of tri-colored legwarmers to accompany my white Nikes. I would have been as excited about Tears for Fears’ upcoming album, trippy surrealist films (The Heathers, anyone?), and the Rubik’s Cube craze as all those arcade mongers who got to experience the Pacman beta.
But for all the griping I do about my actual childhood era, I can’t deprive the 90s of all merit. Yes, the platform tennis shoes, leopard-print pantsuits, and hair wrapped to look like horns on a Visigoth helmet resulted in one of the most vomitrocious band wardrobes ever assembled, but I certainly wouldn’t be the harmonic woman I am today without the guidance of the Spice Girls. And once you get past the teen blarney of Saved By the Bell and the childhood trauma instilled by X-Files episodes your parents shouldn’t have let you watch, you realize the 90s hosted some TV gems: the enduring hilarity of Seinfeld, The Simpsons in their season 7 heyday, Mr. Not-Yet-Big grilling suspects in the original Law and Order, Patrick Stewart charting our course in Star Trek: Next Generation, all the donut-fueled madness of Twin Peaks, and, of course my new obsession, The X-Files, from which “Bad Blood” and “Humbug” are writing genius.
In summation, I rescind my previous sentiments. I suppose without any personal 80s anecdotes to regale my peers with, the 90s aren’t such a bad time period to look back on in this present, indeterminate decade.
Besides, we all know the 1940s Sam Spade era is really where it’s at.