my writing, photography and the occasional handicraft

Okay, I know… what? You’ve never heard of these movies. That’s okay, neither had I. I’m not even sure how I found the second one, but like many serendipitous things, it feels like the movie I’ve been waiting for forever.

So some of you know that I’m quietly working on a new novel, with teenage characters (is it YA? I don’t know. You all will have to tell me, when the time comes!). To keep myself “current” in teen lingo, so to speak, I’ve been reading a bunch of YA romances (some are great, some are terrible, as expected) and watching movies aimed at teens. As a high school teacher, this is all pretty familiar territory. Teens are usually portrayed as ridiculously sex-crazed, way too smart-mouthed, and at the same time, impossibly stupid. That isn’t the picture I really recognize of myself at that age, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the teenagers I know, who are complex and smart and interesting people. Most teen films are, frankly, either dystopian fantasies or stylized vampire trash, and I think I’ve mentioned how I feel about vampires.

These two films, however, are gloriously different. It’s nice to be reimmersed in first love, with all its mistakes and passion and beauty. It’s even nicer when the characters are portrayed by talented, likable young actors who feel like they might be actual people, instead of metaphors for the downfall of society or for an adult’s nostalgic sexuality.

spectacular-now-2 (1)

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Plot: This is the sort of teenage movie that continually surprises with the lack of cliches. Sutter (Miles Teller) is loving his senior year: he has a hot girlfriend and more social cache than he knows what to do with. Charming, if a little abrasive in his cockiness, Sutter is perfectly happy to be the center of attention all the time, and to plan nothing for his future. This is the best time of his life, and he knows it. What really lubricates Sutter’s social experience is alcohol. He’s not just binge-drinking at teenage keggers, he’s carrying a flask and slipping booze into every cup he carries. When his girlfriend gets tired of his drinking and dumps him, Sutter’s at a loss. If being the life of the party isn’t enough, then what’s left? He goes a bender that lands him, unconscious, in a stranger’s yard. He’s “saved” by the neighborhood paper girl, Aimee (Shailine Woodley). She is in his grade, but he has never even spoken to her. They spend the morning hanging out, and before he really knows what he’s doing, Sutter has begun a relationship with the shy, sweet, and very innocent Aimee, who is thrown by this popular boy’s attention. He teaches her to drink, leading to devastating consequences for them both.

The Spectacular Now isn’t a romance, exactly, but it is. You root for Sutter to get his act together and understand that he is hurting Aimee. You root for Aimee to realize that Sutter is doing her no good. Yet at the same time, you recognize that they may be both bad, and great, for each other. Like a real romance, there are benefits and terrible drawbacks to their connection. The movie manages to resolve those drawbacks a bit too neatly at the end, but that’s okay. Few movies cover teen alcoholism with such startling honesty, and without resorting to turning it into a gross-out fest of addiction and misery. Sutter’s path to redemption is hard, but not unachievable.

Scenes to Watch For: The love scene between Sutter and Aimee is low-key and startlingly realistic. Roger Ebert’s last (or nearly) review was for this movie, and it was this scene that stuck with him for the simplicity of its cautious sweetness. I liked it too, but my favorite moment is actually Sutter and Aimee’s first kiss, which flusters her and suprises him, and then is gently dropped as both characters react to what they feel. I also loved the scene after their senior prom, where Aimee explains, in perfectly teenage language, the future she sees for them once she leaves for college. It’s heartbreaking and perfectly accurate in its naive hopefulness.

Actors to Love: My god, Miles Teller and Shailine Woodley! If you’ve only seen them in Divergent, or you know Woodley from Fault in Our Stars, you are in for a treat. Both actors are startlingly natural. You won’t believe either one is acting. They completely disappear into their roles. Teller’s brash confidence beautifully disguises his character’s anger and fear and emptiness, until it slips out in moments where confrontation and realization refuse to back down from his posturing. Woodley is so authentic, it’s almost hard to believe she was ever in another film, because she’s so absolutely Aimee, with her innocence and kindness radiating in every scene. Forget Jennifer Lawrence (who is also amazing, to be fair): Woodley is the real deal.



The First Time (2012)

Put out in very limited theatrical release, this movie would seem to be the very definition of a flop. RottenTomatoes critics (and there are only 17 reviews!) give it a meager 43% approval. If you let that influence you, I promise you’ll be missing out. I suspect this little gem missed it’s target audience somewhere along the way. has over 100 reviews, and the film gets 4.5 stars, and a respectable 7.0 on IMDB from nearly 25,000 reviews. What would I give it? Well, I watched it and then immediately (and I mean immediately) rewatched it. Then I bought the soundtrack (or rather, assembled 90% of it on Spotify). And then I came here to write about it. That’s how much I loved it. Is it perfect? Almost. There are a few overdrawn moments, and the make-up artist really needs to retire as soon as possible (if I can see the male lead’s make-up, you’re trying too hard), but I would easily say it’s one of my favorite little romances, period.

Plot: Dave (Dylan O’Brien) is standing in the alley outside a rocking party, rehearsing a speech that will hopefully move him out of the mythical friendzone and into the arms of his good friend, Jane (Victoria Justice). Overhearing him as she leaves the party in boredom, Aubrey (Britt Robertson) asks who he’s talking to. From there begins a series of conversations that show an immediate spark which neither person is prepared for. Dave really believes he loves Jane, and Aubrey has an older boyfriend (the slightly too cheesy Ronnie, played by James Frecheville as a self-centered, mopey dope). But Aubrey’s sharp critique of Dave’s needy love-paeon, and Dave’s get-over-it romantic side quickly prove to be the basis of a genuine attraction. They walk, they drive, they talk, and they fall in love over the course of a couple nights spent together. Aubrey plays moody alternative rock for Dave, who appreciates why she likes it. Dave points out that she likes him better than she likes Ronnie, and worries when he spills red wine on her bedroom carpet. They banter, they cuddle, then they kiss, and then…

This is where the movie absolutely rocks it. First off, Dave and Aubrey (or the actors playing them) have real, astonishingly sexy chemistry. Their pre-sex scene was so hot, I’d hesitate to watch it with other people in the room (and it’s PG-13! There aren’t even boobies, though there’s a constant threat of boobies). These two kids clearly genuinely want one another. There’s just one problem: they’re both virgins. They rush, or rather, stumble into sex. And it sucks. Really sucks. Like, can’t get around it, that-was-horrific sucks. There are tears, there are embarassed moments, mean things are said out of spite and hurt and fear, and it’s great. You really feel for these poor kids, because all the promise of a great experience is there, but they have no idea how to work with their chemistry long enough to actually please one another. Of course, the movie resolves the problem, but in a realistic and thoughtful way: they are going to have to work on this, and we’re just pleased that they want to try.

Scenes to Watch For: Dave’s friends are loads of fun, and I wish there were more scenes with them (unlike most cute-boy sidekicks). They give him real advice, and though it isn’t always good advice, it’s genuine. I particularly liked the contrasting opinions they have on what he should do after his failed attempt at love. Also moving is Aubrey’s reaction to a car accident that she and Dave drive past: they met the kids in the car briefly the night before, and though the conversation was meaningless and momentary, that they might have been hurt or killed (we never learn their fates) moves her to question if she can handle life as an adult. Of course, the make-out session Dave and Aubrey share before they make it into bed was fantastic enough to be mentioned again. Wow. Really. And then finally, there are several scenes involving a condom that are so genuine and awkward, they’re actually painful to watch.

Actors to Love: Both O’Brien and Robertson are great, though he is a bit more believably teenage than she is, mostly because she looks 22, which she was). I have never seen Dylan O’Brien in anything else (apparently he’s on the verge of stardom, as the star of The Maze Runner), but he reminds me of Kevin Bacon, circa Footloose, with a rangey cuteness that’s thrown off a little by a face that isn’t quite perfect. He also has marvelously subtle and realistic reactions to every conversation. When Aubrey starts talking about STDs after their disasterous first time, the hurt and horror in his eyes are startling. Britt Robertson reminded me of a young Renee Zellwegger, before she got so bee-stung and squinty as to lose her attractiveness. Her Aubrey is both sophisticated and a bit cruel, hiding a genuine sense that she never quite knows how to live up to the image she projects. All the supporting cast are great too, from Aubrey’s kind and loving parents, to Dave’s baby sister, to Jane’s self-absorbed super-hotty.

And did I mention the soundtrack? How much fun is it? More than fun. Bouncy, sexy, smart and thoughtful. I loved this film, and hopefully you will too. Unfortunately, I could only find it to buy on Amazon, and not available to rent (streaming) anywhere, but it was totally worth my $10.




6 Responses to “Writing: Movies — Fall in love like a teenager with The Spectacular Now and The First Time”

  1. sjoycarlson

    Fellow YA writer here… Great advice! I agree with you that I wasn’t a sex-crazed, bumbling smart-mouth when I was in high school either. With my current YA novels, I’m working to harness the not-so-stereotypical teen as well. I read YA books to get ideas on how to harness some of the intense emotions and heavy petting into words, but you’re right, movies are also a great way to do that! It also gives you ideas for ways to visualize and describes actions in addition to teen talk. Thanks for the movie suggestions! I’ll have to check them out. Happy writing!

    • jessicaminiermabe

      Thanks! Have you published? I’d love to read them. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed some of the YA romances I’ve read, as I HATE adult contemporary romances, which are usually what I refer to as Money Porn. YA romances are more focused on love, and all that entails. Mostly, I’ve been trying to figure out how steamy to make my story, as I really want to talk about two people who have a healthy sexual relationship (unlike a few vampires I could mention). We’ll see how it goes when I finish it and send it out to folks. Enjoy the films.

      • sjoycarlson

        I’m not published yet but I working on getting representation. Though, to be honest, my latest what I THOUGHT would be a final revise lead to me discovering that one POV character just wasn’t interesting enough and that lead to a pretty big re-write I’m finishing up now. If you want to check out my first few chapters, here’s the link 😛

        What about you? Are you published? I’d love to take a peek at your work as well.

        I agree about Adult romances…. I just love the innocence, the sweetness of the YA novels I’ve read with romance in them. I also agree with the steaminess factor. In my current novel, I have a boy and a girl POV character and, particularly with the boy, I wonder how um…accurate…to make his natural male…reactions at awkward and embarrassing times… You know. I make a few mentions, just to make it realistic, but, yeah. And in terms of intimacy/sex/healthy relationships, how far to go is hard. I was surprised when The Fault in Our Stars went all the way. And don’t get my started on the message Twilight sent to girls about emotionally unstable/borderline psychologically 😛 abusive relationships.

        Anyway, happy writing!

      • jessicaminiermabe

        Excellent! I’ll check them out! I haven’t even gotten to the representation part yet. Fifteen years ago, I wrote my first novel, and was so annoyed by the whole endless “get an agent, then get a publisher” process that I quit trying. I ended up self-publishing, about three years ago. The novel is here. I think it’s pretty good, though I think my new work is 100x better. We’ll see!

        I thought Fault in Our Stars was good, and having read more teen lit, I’d even say it’s great. I don’t mind the sexy stuff, but what I’ve grown to dislike is the insistent first time scenes where the boy has a good time, and the girl… doesn’t. Hazel describes her first time with Gus as relatively bland, yet they use a condom, which means that for Gus, it was a lot more exciting. I know that’s “realistic,” but I’ve decided that I want to present sex that is fun for both parties, because IT SHOULD BE. I want to tell every girl: if you and the boy you love haven’t figured out how to get you off yet, you aren’t ready for sex! So there’s that. But I need to keep it relatively tasteful. It’s a fine line to walk! And yes, I haven’t quite figured out the whole erection issue either :). It just seems so much more… graphic.

        Though The Spectacular Now‘s sex scene would easily fall into the above annoying category, the second film at least has the good grace to make the sex bad for both parties! And the main male character fully admits that he has no clue what to do, while the main female character deliberately skips her own pleasure (she has a thing about “getting it over with”), only to regret it later. That works for me.

      • sjoycarlson

        I hear you about the whole get an agent get published saga…. I’ve tried it with two previous novels and given up lol. Never self-published them either, though I’m contemplating going back to one of them and perhaps self-publishing.

        Yeah the erection thing is….awkward to write, especially as a woman lol. I more allude to it, but it does feel like it needs to be done for a first person male POV haha.

        And writing the whole sex thing, I dodged that bullet in the current MS because their relationship was too tumultuous to get to that point by the end of the book lol. Now I am curious what other YA books you’ve found to be “great” too!

        I’ll have to explore your page to see what your current WIP is about!

      • jessicaminiermabe

        You won’t find my current WIP info on here yet. I’m still working on the courage to finish the damn thing, much less write anything public about it! I really, really like it, though, so I think it’s going to get done (for once!).

        My favorite YA romances so far have only been by three authors (though I’ve read dozens of these damn things. Most are just teen-appropriate versions of the porny, stupid adult books).

        My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True by Huntley Fitzpatrick were both great, but I loved the second one the most for its flawed heroine, whereas the first one is much more “standard” in that the main character is more of a cypher for the audience.

        Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins are another pair I loved, and again, the second one is my favorite because the main character is flawed and more interesting.

        Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is absolutely amazing, and pretty much reads as grown-up lit about teenage characters.

        Other than that, they’ve been either too bland and dull or too ridiculous. For example, I read one where the main character is a blond, virginal cheerleader who falls in love with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks… who happens to be a Mexican gang member. Yeah, because that’s going to happen. Oh lord. I hated that story so much (especially as a teacher of the occasional Mexican gang member at one point in my career). It was so racist and ridiculous and terrible that I wanted to hit the author in the face. Especially when the girl *literally* saved the boy from death by sacrificing her virginity. Seriously. Kill me now. 🙂

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