Friday, January 24, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Spectacular Now (2013) ***½

R, 95 min.
Director: James Ponsolt
Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Webber, Tim Tharp (novel)
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Masam Holden, Dayo Okeniyi, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andre Royo, Bob Odenkirk

As I get older, I often wonder if these coming of age type of movies will still speak to me in the same way they once did. They don’t. That doesn’t mean they don’t speak to me in powerful ways, however.

When I was in high school, I imagine what I would’ve gotten from the movie “The Spectacular Now” was a connection to that feeling of emotional isolation that so frequently wormed its way into our hearts as teens, daring us to choose between lashing out and understanding. In it we are given two children of broken families trying desperately to understand their situations without letting on to anyone that they don’t have it figured out. The lead character is a boy who is thought of as sort of a class clown, although that turns out to be news to him. He meets a girl ignorant of the social set to which he belongs. She seems to have it all together, but he sees something in her that may even be invisible to the audience. She hides behind her togetherness by never engaging in the emotional needs she requires from those closest to her.

The story is his, so her problems are left unresolved and only partially explored. His are explored to their fullest. As an adult, it’s much easier for me to see the machinations of that exploration than I might have as a teen. He is clearly an alcoholic. I think that’s obvious enough for teens to see, what they may not understand is how that crutch of alcohol threatens to control every aspect of his life. Adapted from a novel that could not have been anything other than autobiographical in nature, I wonder if the author even fully recognized that when he wrote it.

As I really don’t know anything about the book and have not read it, I really can’t speak to those terms, however I believe the film makes a key mistake in dealing with its hero’s plight. It never identifies the alcoholism as something he has to deal with in its own terms. He drinks because he’s afraid. The alcohol numbs his fear but opens him up to more exposure of his shortcomings and uncertainty. He identifies what caused his alcoholism, but never how to combat it. Not even any of the many people he doesn’t even realize care for him bother to give his ailment the name of alcoholism. I can buy that people might not be able to recognize the disease well enough to put a name to it, but surely someone should’ve at least pointed out to him that he needed help. It may sound cliché, but it’s something that people who care about someone else is willing to do.

This is a very minor problem I have with “The Spectacular Now”. As someone who has dealt with alcoholism in my life, I was merely disappointed that some sort of acknowledgement of this very big problem with teenage drinking wasn’t given. The film is very well made and performed, and makes for a touching and poignant coming of age story; but I feel it plays too coy with its duty to properly identify a problem that most of its victims refuse to recognize.

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