Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Coming of Age: The Spectacular Now and The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now

American filmmakers seem to have lost the knack of making romantic comedies, but every year brings some good new coming-of-age pictures. The Spectacular Now, which opened late in the summer, has a casual, intimate style that derives from the director James Ponsoldt’s interplay with his actors as well as from the dialogue that the screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adapting a novel by Tim Tharp), give them to work with. Ponsoldt’s leading man is the phenomenally talented Miles Teller; he the haunted teenager in Rabbit Hole who was inadvertently responsible for running down Nicole Kidman’s little boy, and he also played the grinning best pal in Footloose who learns how to dance in that musical’s most exuberant scene. In The Spectacular Now he’s Sutter, a high school kid who’s stalled in every conceivable way as he approaches graduation. He’s skating through his classes and dangerously close to failing math; he hasn’t completed his college applications. He drinks too much; he carries a whiskey flask around with him and sometimes shows up under the influence for his after-school job, in a men’s store. His girl friend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), breaks up with him and immediately starts dating the best catch in the senior class, a football player named Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) and also the president of the student council. The title of the movie refers to Sutter’s lame claim to a philosophy – living in the present rather than worrying about the future. It doesn’t seem to be serving him especially well: Cassidy leaves him because she thinks he’s cheating on her, but really she’s ready to move on to someone who suits her seriousness about her own future.

Sutter thinks of himself as a player whose clowning, lubricated by alcohol, makes him popular and whose genial bullshit fools everyone. He is popular, but no one takes him seriously, and no one buys his line. His jocular approach to life is already out of date; his classmates, with their eyes on college, are passing him by. Teller has the kind of sweetness the young John Cusack had in the 1989 Say Anything and even though he’s playing a boy who, in the words of his boss, Dan (Bob Odenkirk), is “in neutral,” he has a spark in those soulful, glittering dark eyes; as an actor Teller is all there. The movie focuses on the two most important things that happen to Sutter as he heads toward the end of his high school career. He meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley) and he gets back in touch with his long-absent father, Tommy (Kyle Chandler), whom Sutter’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh)says she threw out for cheating on her.

Miles Teller as Sutter
Sutter meets Aimee when he gets drunk and passes out in someone’s yard; she comes across him on her paper route. They’re classmates, but he’s never noticed her; she knows who he is, of course – everybody does. She’s modest and tremendously appealing, and the actress is lovely, quietly intense and utterly authentic. Aimee doesn’t think of herself as interesting, so when they have lunch together in the school cafeteria and he tells her a story about himself, she can’t cough up anything to relate in reply. But he’s drawn to her, to her easy generosity and perhaps because she’s so unlike every other girl he’s ever hung out with. She agrees to tutor him in geometry and he invites her to a party. But her best friend Kristal (Kaitlyn Dever) is suspicious of his motives and his best friend Ricky (Masam Holden) thinks that she’s a bad choice for a “rebound” girl friend because he’s sure to break her heart. His motives are definitely mixed, and at first he doesn’t treat her as she deserves. He’s still trying to get Cassidy back; the only reason he takes Aimee to the party at all is that he knows Cassidy’s going to be there and (in a weak moment) she’s e-mailed him that she misses him. And as soon as they arrive he sloughs Aimee off on another boy, Cody (Logan Mack), who’s a fan of the same graphic novel series she likes. But Cassidy barely has a few sips of beer with Sutter before Marcus sweeps her out of the party, so, left empty-handed, he sidles back to Aimee and retrieves her. Cody sees exactly what’s going on; he shakes his head in disgust as they go off together. But Aimee is too inexperienced to read his bad behavior, or to see his asking her to the prom as mostly an outgrowth of Cassidy’s desertion of him. He can’t shake Cassidy off; he gives Marcus – who confides in him that she doesn’t have as much fun with him as she used to with Sutter – deliberately bad advice in the hopes that she’ll break up with him. (It doesn’t work.) He seems to latch onto Aimee when he can’t get closer to Cassidy, or when it occurs to him. But she’s so pleased to see him when he gets around to dropping by that his spur-of-the-moment invitation to his sister’s for dinner pleases and flatters her. And Woodley and the filmmakers keep us aware all along of what Sutter is offering her, that he loosens her up and encourages her to express herself – there’s a charming bit where he teaches her how to curse – and stand up for herself with her mother, who has her on a tight leash. His belief in living in the now and his drinking may not be helpful to him, but it’s clear that she can use a little recklessness in her life.

Shailene Woodley as Aimee
Sutter doesn’t want to take Aimee seriously; he tells Ricky that he’s just trying to help her out, that he figures he can give her the “boy friend experience,” which she’s never had. But her affection for him brings him closer to her, to his own surprise. When she blurts out at his sister’s that her dad was addicted to painkillers and died of an overdose, her ingenuousness prompts him to tell her the truth (as he understands it) about his own dad, correcting the glamorous version he gave her earlier, that he’s an airline pilot who travels all the time. It’s not just her honesty that drags it out of him, but the feelings she stirs in him when they have sex. (This is surely one of the best teen sex scenes on record, detailing Aimee’s nervousness, his eagerness, her need to tell him over again how much she likes him, their mutual attempt to use jokes to cover the awkwardness, their giggling, her efforts to get past her fear and her initial physical discomfort.) And then they make a pact: she’ll confront her mother about letting her go away to college and he’ll demand that his reveal his father’s whereabouts.

It works for her but not for him; his mother doesn’t give up the information – but his sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) does. And in a heartbreaking sequence he takes Aimee with him and drives a few hours out of town to meet up with the man he has held out hope for, that he’s not the heartless bastard his mother has characterized him – that there’s another side to her story. There is, but it turns out to be even worse than she let on. She didn’t throw her husband out; he abandoned the family. From the moment we see Tommy (Chandler gives a superb performance), at the motel where he lives, his scruffy, hung-over look puts us off, and so does his cagey tone. And we’re unsettled when he hauls the two teenagers to his local bar, orders them drinks and, after boasting about his own conviction to live in the now, leaves his son to pick up the tab. Then he rushes out with a vague promise to meet them back at the hotel. An hour later Sutter finds him back at the bar, drinking with his pals. This encounter shakes Sutter, who can’t help seeing his dad as a mirror image of himself. He’s inconsolable; when Aimee reaches out to him, reminding him of how much she cares about him, he insists that he doesn’t deserve anybody’s love and throws her out of the car – and she gets knocked down by a passing car and ends up in the hospital.

The problem with The Spectacular Now is the final act. The plotting goes a little haywire: only about a week goes by between the car accident and graduation, yet Aimee seems totally recovered, and though this isn’t the only case of sloppy continuity in the movie, it’s the most glaring and the oddest. The main trouble, though, is tonal. There has to be a way to shift Sutter’s story from the tragedy it seems set up to be (where he turns into his own alcoholic-drifter dad) to the more hopeful one the movie wants to leave us with, but the screenwriters don’t pull it off. The most melancholy scenes in the last half hour – Sutter’s exchange with Cassidy at graduation, where he tells her his family didn’t come because he gave them the wrong date; his refusal to promise Dan that he won’t stop showing up to work loaded, leading Dan, who’s very fond of him, to reluctantly let him go; and the scene where, reconciled with Aimee, he leaves her to get on the bus to college by herself, peering at her through the bus-station window as he drives past and refusing to answer his cell phone – are all too convincing. The screenwriters don’t appear to believe in their own resolution, where Sutter starts to turn his life around. And so we can’t either, much as we want to.

Emma Watson and Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower also adapted an adolescent coming-of-age novel – by Stephen Chbosky, who wrote his own screenplay and directed the picture. And like The Spectacular Now, it’s a movie that takes on more than it can handle, though in both cases the result of the ambition and the attempt to get very close to the reality of a boy’s difficult adolescence is that it leaves you with a great deal more than most movies do. Logan Lerman gives a lyrical, anguished performance as Charlie, a sensitive, deeply lovable boy whose terror and solitude in his first days of high school vanish when, improbably and on a desperate impulse, he reaches out to Patrick (Ezra Miller), a senior in his shop class with the confidence to deflect the casually mean comments of his classmates. By the end of the night Patrick has introduced Charlie to his crew of friends, all of them seniors, intellectuals and proud misfits who accept him without hesitation and barely acknowledge the social distinction that his younger age would underscore in any conventional group of teens. He’s instantly pulled into their lives – into Patrick’s clandestine romance with a football player (Johnny Simmons) whose discomfort with his own homosexuality makes him treat Patrick badly, and the way Patrick’s stepsister Sam (Emma Watson) attaches herself to a college photographer (Reece Thompson) who isn’t good enough for her. Sam’s and Patrick’s situations echo that of Charlie’s older sister (Nina Dobrev), whose boy friend (Nicholas Braun) hits her. When Charlie confides, somewhat obliquely, in his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) – his intellectual mentor – he tells Charlie, “We get the love we think we deserve.” And though Charlie’s own love life is thrown out of whack when the most assertive and sharp-tongued member of this new circle, Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), throws herself at him and he’s too polite and too cowed to resist, he has to learn, along with Patrick and Sam, that he’s more deserving than he’s allowed himself to believe.

The movie is beautifully directed and acted (Watson and Miller are especially fine) and the quality of observation in the writing is very impressive. But the film is overloaded. Charlie has an OCD side, and what he obsesses over is the suicide of his aunt (Melanie Lynskey, in flashbacks), for which he feels responsible; he lingers over images of her death. Also, we learn, his best friend shot himself at the end of the last school year – a detail that he mentions early on and never brings up again, so it almost feels like a plotting error. But Charlie doesn’t need either of these events in his past to provide obstacles for him; the trouble any teenage boy with an unorthodox frame of mind and a delicacy of feeling would have in navigating his way through high school, not to mention the things he learns and the challenges he faces in running with a crowd of creative eighteen-year-olds, is enough dramatic material for a coming-of-age narrative. The real core of Charlie’s story isn’t the ghost of Aunt Helen but the fact that he falls for Sam and then gets so balled up when he finds himself acting the part of Mary Elizabeth’s boy friend that he almost botches everything and loses these beloved friends who rescued him from high school hell. Chbosky almost botches things, too, when he shifts the focus toward the end of the movie to a revelation that the movie most emphatically doesn’t require. Luckily the movie’s virtues far outweigh its shortcomings, and the fact that the last act is messed up has less serious consequences for The Perks of Being a Wallflower than it does for The Spectacular Now. Both movies, though, stay up in your head after the credits roll. You might say that you take Charlie and his friends and Sutter and Aimee home with you.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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