A Few Thoughts on The Spectacular Now
Young adult fiction, in literature and film, has seen a considerable rise in attention over the past several years. Movies like The Hunger Games and books like The Fault in Our Stars have followed on the heels of the likes of The Perks of Being a Wall Flower to fuel the teenage expression fire. The expansion of the genre can be likened to the late 80’s with its Pretty in Pinks and Saint Elmo’s Fires. The proliferation has given rise to a variety of relatable stories and teenage characters. The pinnacle of young adult fiction has been realized in The Spectacular Now.
Focusing on the tumultuous closing months of high school, the story centers on the charismatic Sutter (Miles Teller). A self-proclaimed king of his high school, Sutter is satisfied and complacent with his sleepy suburban lifestyle. Sutter is filled to the brim with idiosyncratic quirks, rendering his character a polarizing concoction of class clown, drama king, and big man on campus, mixed with a heavy handed dash of teenage angst for good measure. Sutter is fast talking and self-absorbed. One of the truly beautiful aspects of the movie is its visually arresting depiction of selfishness. The camera work surpasses subtle but falls the perfect distance short of too on-the-nose. The focus shifts, zoning in on Sutter, in the foreground, and blurring whomever is in the background, forcing you to become complicit in Sutter’s egotism induced blindness.
The movie takes place in third person but the sound mixing and cinematography take you inside Sutter’s head, allowing you to fill it with your own inner monologue, building a connection and creating sympathy. Sutter’s irrational and absurd reactions to the situations he is embroiled in are undercut by the audiences’ rationality and foresight of the impending dramatic irony. Sutter’s inability to comprehend the consequences of his actions is infuriating, the film engrosses the audience in Sutter’s self-indulgence only to rip us out into the destructive reality he inflicts. His ineptitude for sympathy and empathy is nowhere more evident than in the relationships with the female characters around him, his mother, sister, and Aimee. When his mother confronts Sutter in the kitchen, reprimanding him once again for wrinkling the uniform she is forced to wear to a job she hates, the mother goes completely out of focus. A droning machinery sound drowns her whining voice in the audiences’ ears. Sutter, eating a bowl of cereal, tunes her out with practiced ease. The mother returns to focus as she finishes her tirade. The camera work is similar in scenes with his sister and love interests. The cinematography isolates the audience further into Sutter’s loneliness.
The beauty of the characters in The Spectacular Now is in their depth and complexity, no character, save for one, is pure good or pure evil. Sutter presents himself as superficial and content but his delusion into self-assuredness is hallmark of almost every teenager. Aimee (Shailene Woodley), on the surface, appears as the quintessential nerd, lost in a defense mechanism world of sci-fi and art. Each scene spent with Aimee adds another dimension to the flask wielding ambitious dreamer. As neither of the characters are one-dimensionally shoved into a single pigeonholed teenage archetype, a subtle dichotomy takes life between them. Sutter and Aimee, fall into the classic nerd versus popular kid playful antagonism but breakdown the barriers of banality with alarming quickness. Topically, Sutter is shallow and abrasive, within, he is compassionate and loving. Topically, Aimee is compassionate and loving, within, she is rambunctious and passionate. Their topical personas reflect off the others subsurface personalities, bringing out the best in both. Sutter realizes the deeper parts of himself in Aimee and Aimee realizes the value in spontaneity and need to chase her aspirations in Sutter. They tip each other’s scales by balancing each other out. They complete each other.
The movie is a breath of fresh air. It is rewarding, in the sense that it gives you, not want you want, but the truth. It is also one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the book.