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.
When two people who love each other fight, it’s one of the most piffling spectacles around. Testosterone prevails, prompting inner gorillas to puff out their chests, and nerves are frayed, making it hard to understand what the argument’s even about through all the Jimmy Stewart stammering. Teeth grit as the couple tries to refrain from making statements they can’t rescind and ultimately, if the pair is still smitten when the blows begin to cease, somebody caves and they’re left wondering what the last hour and a half was worth.
When two people who don’t love each other anymore fight, however, it’s an entirely different can of beans. Especially if one party is plagued by bipolar disorder and the other is ultra-hypersensitive.
There was a time in my childhood when I regularly beheld the savage evidence that love was fleeing my household in increments, and as a result I pledge to the Tao of Separation when I say that sometimes divorce is a wonderful thing.
But at the age of thirteen, years after the screaming tournaments had dissipated, peace had become commonplace, and my parents were well adjusted to their separate lives, homes, and dating arenas, my father mistook my disapproval of his new girlfriend for resurfacing divorce pangs, and my younger sister and I were sent off to divorce camp.
Feeling the resentment Hansel and Gretel must have felt when their woodcutter father listened to his second wife and sent them packing, I was furious about the arrangement. After all, I was in the prime of the raging preteens (a likely cause of the aversion to the new lady friend, but with Dad’s concurrence after their break up, I still maintain that she was neurotic). In those dark ages I was teeming with the only year-long hellishness my parents would ever have to endure from their children, and chartered the histrionic teenage slogan “everything’s unjust.” Attending night classes at a nearby high school for counseling on a bygone facet of life that I’d been rejoicing for years certainly fell into the “unjust” category. I’m not positive what my sister thought about the whole ordeal (she was still in the stage of indifferent agreement, probably to avoid my preteen wrath), but she trudged into Westview High School’s empty, after-hours hallways with me just the same: going up against my intimidatingly muscular father and his obduracy was not an option.
I don’t remember how long divorce camp lasted each night or how many times we attended it. In fact, I don’t remember much of divorce camp at all, as if self-induced amnesia wiped my adolescent slate clean. That, or I just wasn’t paying any attention. But while the course curriculum and the face of our male counselor slip my mind, I remember the atmosphere with clarity. Divorce camp is a sorrowful place, attended by kids who probably resisted their parents’ decisions to partake with the same obstinacy I displayed but who probably needed a compassionate guide to lead them out of the throes of misunderstanding. By surveying the circle that my sister and I had become a part of, it was apparent that all the children in attendance, including one of the popular girls from my own school district who I was startled to recognize, were conflicted about the ordeal their parents had brought upon them, and while my sister and I sat through the lessons with apathy clear on our faces, it was humbling to witness the effects divorce has on a child when it’s dealt with incautiously.
Even though they wear the red badge of divorce, my parents are exceptionally gifted at the job they ushered into their lives when I was born. They certainly weren’t one of those calendar-counting couples, eager to have kids since they played “house” in their juvenescence (like… eh hem… me), but they arose to the task of nurturing and educating their children with such a natural finesse that besides the year of frenetic hormones, my sister and have always been confident, good-natured individuals with unyielding love for the people who raised us. It was with this same open-dialogue and compassion my parents always administered that they went about familiarizing us with the end of their marital union, and because of their attention to detail, I’ve never been able to relate to the children who blame themselves for their parents separation. For me, divorce was a welcome relief. Sure, it meant moving back and forth between parents every two weeks for the next nine years, enormous laundry basket and textbook-filled backpack bursting at the seams in tow, but that only produced incredibly efficient packing skills.
Still and all, observing the despondent faces of my fellow counseling detainees, under bright, interrogational fluorescents no less, revealed to my kid-self that divorce is very often not such a clean affair, and there are bound to be emotional casualties beyond those of the legal settlement parties.
So I suppose the moral of this disquisition goes something like this: should you have kids now, or should you acquire them somewhere along the line (either unexpectedly or pre-planned since a matronly childhood), try to maintain an honest discourse with them–and not just about life-altering issues like divorce, but about all facets of life. They may be small and naturally incur your irrepressible baby-talk in the early years, but having been a small, tow-headed child at one point, I clearly remember that even little kids can absorb new information if you take the time to teach them. Besides, if an open relationship means saving your kids from belittling experiences like the extraneous divorce camp your neurotic girlfriend recommends, then why wouldn’t you engage in a little confab with your baby-kin every now and then?
My friend Mark recently notified me that Xanga, the online hospice for attention-seeking preteens and angst-driven high schoolers, has finally come to terms with its fiscal and technological fossilization and is shutting down tomorrow unless it fulfills the last two-thirds of its staggering resuscitation quota by some miracle of God. The last time I thought about my Xanga blog was when I suddenly felt impelled to create this WordPress account, but in that instance I merely pondered the medium of blogging itself–not the content of my diaristic teenage rants and ramblings. Now that I’m faced with an actual expiration date, I figured my old Xanga deserved a parting once-over.
As soon as the adolescent memories started amassing, I realized revisiting three out of the innumerable blog posts was enough for me. Present-day critics certainly aren’t kidding when they joke about Xanga’s cultivation of the malaise. While I usually entertained my small but loyal cohort of subscribers with a hyperactive sense of humor that has since evolved, there are a couple blog entries that augment the Xanga standard for emotional harangues. Some of these vociferations probably revolve around my father’s neurotic girlfriend at the time, but most irrefutably deal with the boys of my past. For instance, in one entry I spend a paragraph listing off my relationship standings with 23 guy friends, exes, and past crushes–the majority of whom I have absolutely no memory of (Straight Ryan and Gay Ryan? Sebastian #5629? Skunk Boy!?). To make matters more difficult, I speak in a cryptically metaphoric manner that only close friends could have decoded back in 2006. Flash forward to what I assumed were my greater mental faculties of 2013, and I have no idea what in Buddha’s name I was babbling on about.
One thing I do remember with clarity, however, is a pastime documented in an entry dated Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006; an entry that describes a breakup with a former boyfriend in morose detail.
When I was growing up, I never confined myself to a single clique, floating instead from each stereotyped social circle with ease thanks to my fluid label of “artist.” Apparently, this liminal nature translated to the host of guys who came courting, because my boyfriends of school years past were quite the archetypal medley. Amidst this collection was the indie musician who started my high school dating life with disturbingly long, 70s tresses and reappeared years later to culminate high school with a hackneyed Portland beard; the pseudo-gothic, punk kid whose attraction to me apparently emanated from my obvious “innocence” and probably contributed to his recent conversion to born-again Christianity; the multicultural cross-country athlete who barely said a word to me the entire time we dated and puked at my feet whenever I tried to congratulate him after a race; the visually-deceptive hyper-nerd who built his own iPad from scratch and intended to revolutionize Lexus sound wave technology via his favorite overused phrase of “frequencies;” the budding politician who at 6’8″ would tower over the competition but ultimately make one of the most lethargic congressmen ever elected; and an array of flings so obsolete as to nullify explanation.
What most of the aforementioned disparate characters had in common (besides their initial gravitation towards a giggly, teenage girl with dyed gold hair and hurdling bruises) was that they fell prey to a cruel trend I seemed unable to shake back in those days: my propensity for dumping guys after a mere three weeks of dating. I suppose I was something of an unbreakable foal back in those days, my head too high in the clouds to find any value in menial high school relationships and my young predilections too fickle to be anchored to any one commitment for long. It wasn’t that I was completely inhumane though: in the November Xanga entry where I describe my breakup with the taciturn athlete (who finally mustered up a response when he punched a locker in anger and went on to compose several songs that anathematized my name and garnered meager local fame), my compunction and sorrow is apparent and I vividly recall succumbing to the romcom cliché of lamenting each separation with a fresh crop of tears.
In retrospect, however, I can’t help but muse that some transcendental Moon intuition was at play every time I said my adieus on the 21st day of a relationship. After all, years of rumination and introspection have asserted that every single one of those beaus was not a good union by Matchmaker Yente’s criterion. It was only when I went against the three-week benchmark and reconnected with my first high school boyfriend that the whiplash of retribution catalyzed a new chapter of my dating life, resulting in one of the most harrowing experiences of my youth and teaching me a life-altering lesson in recuperation and self-perseverance.
Today, as I look back on those first three Xanga posts, mulling over the irony that three is still the biggest number I can stomach, I can’t help but feel a sense of peaceful detachment. While it’s a fascinating study in human maturation, reading the words of a young girl with an entirely different outlook on life, a slew of petty relationships in her past, and no suspicion of the interpersonal bliss she’d accidentally discover junior year of college, merely reminds me of a bygone longing for something I wouldn’t let myself enjoy. Ultimately, I have little desire to salvage that conflicted teenage voice. So go ahead Xanga, the times have changed, that girl with the fickle temperament has grown a whole new conscience and her three-week dispensation has long since found a new naïve host; guess it’s about time to let the online record go the same way my noncommittal past went.
I can’t remember the last time I audibly stammered to someone’s face, but I won’t hastily forget this occasion.
Today as I headed back from work, turning onto Chicago St. in my neighborhood of district-homages and sweating profusely after a two mile hike in the quintessentially dry heat of the southwest, a woman I’d passed once before noticed my friendly smile and returned the favor. Then, she uttered an entire conversation in rapid-fire Spanish. When she paused for my reaction, I opened my mouth and nothing came out… for several seconds.
Now before you go dismissing me as the ignorant Anglo-Saxon I made myself out to be on the corner of Chicago and Michigan, allow me to divulge a little history. Ever since I was mistakenly assigned Spanish Immersion History in the 6th grade, I’ve always taken Spanish classes. Not only was this decision based on the advantages the skill provides in the job market, but it also stemmed from the fact that I grew up in a household that doubled as a mini Mazatlan; bedecked in a vibrant, chili pepper color palette, adorned with a skull-faced Catrina or Frida or collection of alebrijes in every room, and owned by a woman whose obsession with Mexico bridged from her hacienda replica in Portland to a casa auténtica she inhabited for a time in Oaxaca. While I resided in this Latin American lifestyle with mi mamá, Spanish was spoken fluently under our roof, and the approbation I received in Spanish class reflected it.
Once I graduated from high school and money began to dictate my education, language was forced to take the wayside, and the extreme expectations art schools perpetuate extinguished any time or energy I had to devote to practicing a second language. It’s true what they say about retention diminishing once you’ve exited childhood, and I’m the perfect case study. As a high school student, I could understand and speak Spanish, easily read and write in the language, and even think in Spanish, but inconstant exposure has stripped away several of those capabilities, reducing me to someone who can understand what you’re saying, but won’t be able to respond unless you’re only question is, “How are you?”
I have to consider myself fortunate for retaining anything at all though–especially considering the fact that my summer job during college involved teaching art to over 150 Spanish-speaking middle school students. It’s a sure bet that if I hadn’t been able to understand the petty wisecracks my kids initially made behind my back, I would have never earned their respect. Personal experience and three years in the business taught me that teenagers are ruthless enough when they feel age inhibits adults from understanding them, let alone a language barrier. Step back into the shoes of a fourteen-year-old and come armed with comedic ripostes for every snide remark, however, and you’ll earn yourself some incredibly entertaining friends.
Today, years after my participation in the Spanish Honors Society and my stint as a middle school ringmaster, I reside in what several downtown Los Angelenos have described as “the ghetto,” but from my perspective it seems a lot like home–or what Mexico City will be like once I finally travel outside of this country. My community is predominantly Hispanic, the surrounding shops are mostly tiendas and mercados, and thus far only the beaming woman I met in the street today has attempted to make conversation, discussing things I understood (Isn’t it a beautiful, sunny day? How are you doing? Good? Well my dear, may the Holy Father in heaven watch over you and bless you with good health and a wonderful day!), but could only think to say, “¡Gr-gracias!” to in response.
It’s sad to think that a girl so smitten with audial and visual language, who used to sing classical arias in Italian, German, and French and who continues to create multi-lingual artwork, has to stammer her way through one phrase of Spanish. Call it a fluke and blame it on the heat of the day, the two mile trek on blistered, flip-flopped feet, or the preoccupied concentration with what on earth I could discuss in this blog today, but ultimately I think this shameful faux pas is a sign: time to whip out a sombrero in the guise of a thinking cap, seek the counsel of the venerated Rosetta Stone, and get back to broadening my mind, Sybill Trelawney style!