Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: THE SPECTACULAR NOW: Fable of Waste

When I was seventeen I was progressing into my second year of funversity and only now and then could be haunted by the spectre of my neglect of schoolwork whose inevitable consequences were looming darkly between every sip of rum I'd take at parties that were getting increasingly more hedonistic. The thought of the responsibility that might enable my enjoyment of the life beyond entering adulthood was like thought of a fatal infection. Fun was too important. Really, it felt like real life and everything else was done by the life administrators that posed as parents. I was good at drinking and being liked. What could go wrong?

Sutter Keely is also good at being liked and drinking but where I would never drink between parties he tipples in the school canteen. He has a problem but he's seventeen and won't admit it.When we open he's sitting in front of a blinking cursor. He's applying for a place at a university and has come to a question about the hardest thing he's ever done. He begins by talking about the girlfriend who has just dumped him. He writes that they were the life of the party, of every party. A flashback plays under his voiceover. He lets himself fall into a swimming pool. His ex does the same. The rest of the party moves forward like a herd of buffalo and fall in fully clothed. It is a superb and oddly understated moment and won't be the last.

When Sutter is dumped in humiliating fashion at a party he tanks himself up and hits the road, literally, waking up in the middle of someone's front lawn with his car nowhere in sight. Through the morning's white glare he discerns a girl looking at him. The shy and bookish Aimee takes form from the light and enters Sutter's world with all the angelic innocence and goodness he needs. But that doesn't happen.

At first he charms her into use as a jealousy factory when he takes her to a party so he can introduce her to fellow nerds and let his ex know that he's still desirable. This fails. He snaps into a love-the-one-you're-with moment with Aimee and before he notices it he is charmed by her unaffected shyness and intelligence. Waking up after sleeping this alcohol off he remembers asking her to the prom. His continued obsession with his ex makes this a dilemma.

In other news his marks at school are plummeting, he's getting tanked at work (hiding it in a jumbo takeaway juice cup) and he keeps denying to everyone who's still listening that he won't get anything out of tertiary education. He begins to depend on Aimee for a way out of this and coaches her in standing up to her constraining mother and break through into doing what she wants (university). Aimee strikes a bargain with him to the same effect. He's also increasingly curious about the father who has been absent since his childhood and is determined to find him.

This fable of responsibility might well feature a lot of overly familiar tropes but the doggedness with which it pursues both the difficulties of surrendering the comfort of dependency and assuming the tougher way of taking charge and the sheer glorious allure of fun when young. Aimee isn't an immediate guardian angel. She is so eager to please him and overcome her shyness that she readily joins him in his alcohol even though she's hopelessly ill equipped to match him. Her own reach toward progress has the feel of a slowly fading hangover. Sutter's is a harder trot and the film is better for allowing this to play out rather than fixing it with a narrative pill (there is something like this but it is not played as a cure all).

Performances are what really lift this from the summer-that-changed-me routine to something both funnier and creditably serious. Miles Teller, a kind of toned Mark Zuckerberg rises above his character's rasping darkness to show us charm that would work in the real world. Shailene Woodley dowds down for Aimee and keeps us aching for her fragility to be kept unshattered. Rising indie diva Brie Larson gets and uses well some surprising room to move as the conflicted ex, Cassidy. And for the second time in two weeks at the cinema Jennifer Jason Leigh proves that she can rise above the indulgence of her early career and play straight and command her screen time.

If the closing monologue cloys the final shot allows that to pale as it takes command and leaves us with its brightly coloured ghost walking beside us on our way to the light of the foyeur. Light but liked.

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