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.
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.
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. Amazon.com 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.