I remember the first time I drank Crystal Pepsi. For those too young to remember, Pepsi once manufactured a version of its drink that was clear like Sprite. I knew it was Pepsi, but my eyes told my mouth to expect Sprite. I tasted it and it was just like Pepsi, but I spit it out in disgust, because it was not what my mouth expected. There was nothing inherently bad about it, but the twisting of my expectations led to a sour experience.
Why am I bringing this up? Because that's how I felt watching The Spectacular Now.
This movie is being advertised as a romantic coming of age story in high school.
It is a movie about the destructive nature of alcohol on people's lives.
The movie centers around Sutter (Miles Tiller), an affable scamp who has just broken up with his girlfriend towards the end of senior year. After a drunken confrontation at a party, Sutter passes out on a lawn to be found by Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a poor girl from his school on her paper route. Drawn to her innocence, though not wanting to admit it, Sutter begins to hang out with her more and more. He has very little else as his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works all the time, his father is out of the picture, and his adult sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is married to a rich lawyer. Sutter takes Aimee to parties and teachers her to drink and to cuss and to get angry at her mom. But as they grow closer, the relationship becomes more toxic.
One of the reasons the movie doesn't work very well is that Sutter is so distasteful. Like many teens, he is self-centered and an emotional vampire, drinking down ecstatic feelings drawn from his relationships. The movie tries to make Sutter funny and charming, but it always falls flat. Tiller, at his best, comes off like a kid doing a Vince Vaughn impression. That isn't so much his fault as the material. I kept trying to find a reason to care for Sutter but always came up short.
Another thing that turned me off early was the ubiquitous drinking. As a high school teacher I see how corrosive excessive alcohol is in the life of young people. In the beginning it is treated as a matter of fact part of life. Most of the audience I was with found the alcohol jokes sly and funny. I did not. However, I did not realize until halfway through the film that the filmmakers were not glorifying alcohol, but demonizing it. It acted as a subtle poison to everything in Sutter's life. His grades, his home life, and his relationships suffer.
But the thing that made me most uncomfortable was the seduction of the innocent Aimee. Woodley was great as the everygirl who is so simply sweet that being around her feels like a sugar high. The sex scene in the middle of the movie was meant to be awkward and funny. But I was filled with rage. At this point, Sutter does not realize what an amazing gift Aimee is and he takes her innocence. Later in the movie his self-hatred mirrored against her selflessness leads to some disasters.
If the writer's intent was to show how alcohol subtly seduces and then destroys, then they have done the job very well. Director James Ponsoldt, who directed another alcohol related drama Smashed, does a good job handling the visuals, with moody light and shadows. To be clear, The Spectacular Now is not a bad movie. But it was so different from the movie I was expecting that I found myself rejecting it the further it went on. Maybe in time I will revisit it and it will have a different effect on me. But for now, it was a disappointment.
2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.