SXSW 2013 Review: James Ponsoldt’s ‘The Spectacular Now’
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The Spectacular Now
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriter: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler

Directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed), The Spectacular Now stars Miles Teller (Footloose) as Sutter Keely, a charming high school senior who lives in “the now.” Sutter is the life of the party – a kid with no plans for the future other than holding down his job at the local men’s clothing store.

Sutter’s lack of ambition might have something to do with being an aspiring alcoholic – carrying a flask of the hard stuff with him at all times. He finally hits rock bottom after being dumped by his girlfriend (Brie Larson) and wakes up on a lawn with Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) standing over him. Aimee’s the shy, nice girl who reads science-fiction manga and works her mother’s paper route. While Aimee has dreams of escaping her dead-end small town, Sutter lives in the absorbing delusion of “the spectacular now,” and yet somehow, they’re drawn to one another.

Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer), The Spectacular Now is an adaptation of Tim Tharp‘s novel by the same name that captures the insecurity and confusion of adolescence. Teller and Woodley are brilliant in Ponsoldt’s film – it’s rare that young actors can portray teens with the maturity that these two display – their chemisty is palpable, and they’re simply phenomenal on screen together.

A fantastic supporting cast including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead fleshes out Ponsoldt’s funny, poignant film with terrific performances – and a dramatic turn for Odenkirk, who’s got the chops to be the next Richard Jenkins if given the opportunity.

The topic of alcoholism and teenage drinking is a touchy one – it can quickly turn into an after-school special if it isn’t handled appropriately, but Ponsoldt navigates this minefield and shows us Teller’s struggles without emotionally manipulating us – it’s an honest portrayal of family and budding romance and the pressures of young adulthood.

After Smashed and The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. His films are honest, compassionate, and he always seems to figure out how to get the most out of his actors. Mary Elizabeth Winstead turned out her best work in Smashed and now Teller and Woodley have ascended to the next level of their career thanks to The Spectacular Now.

Reminiscent of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Ponsoldt’s latest film gives me hope that there’s still room for small, personal films that explore the human condition. The Spectacular Now premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley earned a special jury award for acting – and I’m so glad I was able to see this film at SXSW with an audience of film fans who were just as amazed as me by the direction, writing, and acting of this wonderful coming-of-age story. John Hughes would be proud.

The Spectacular Now was picked up for distribution by A24 films and will be released on August 2, 2013.

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