When it comes to teen movies, everyone knows the rules: Boy meets girl, unexpectedly falls in love, everything is great until heartbreak ensues, and then boy spends the rest of the time coming up with ways to woo girl back for real.
It’s a formula as old as anything else we know, so why does it seem like every decade or so the new generation has to reinvent the wheel and offer up its own penultimate version of the teen experience?
Rules or not, early movies like the 1973 flick “American Graffiti” helped demonstrate that the market for coming-of-age stories could be lucrative, and not just with kids. By capitalizing on one generation’s nostalgia for the past and another’s search for a decent movie to take a girl out to, Hollywood was able to appeal to both teenagers and their parents, striking critical acclaim and commercial gold in one fell swoop.
But it really wasn’t until 1984, when John Hughes took the world by storm with the release of “Sixteen Candles,” that Hollywood started paying attention to this fast-emerging genre, which eventually launched the careers of Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall and sundry, other forgettable Brat Packers (I’m looking at you, Andrew McCarthy).
More importantly, “Sixteen Candles” also did something else: It covered the whole genre – nay, the whole idea of an earnest portrayal of teen life – in a layer of schmaltz so thick and saccharine that it would take the release of something truly scathing, like the 1987 black comedy “Heathers” – which stars an early-era Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, squinting and squirming his way through a Nicholson impersonation so blatant it’s almost charming – to reveal the worst excesses of the genre.
While “Heathers” humbled the teen movie concept and set a blueprint for flicks like “Jawbreaker” and “Mean Girls” to cash in on later, it didn’t level the genre. Instead, it exposed a schism that screenwriters are still trying to reconcile to this day. Can a film for teens expose the bitchy, sometimes cruel, and awkward underbelly of what it’s like to be on the cusp of adulthood, while still tapping into some of that longing for youth and young love that works so well with the date night crowd?
Ostensibly, “The Spectacular Now,” which was directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – the team behind “500 Days of Summer” – makes a case that it can be done.
By positioning itself as a pared down alternative to the slicked up, hyper pop culture-infused teen flicks of recent years, the movie strives to incorporate elements from each of the highly stylized schools that inform teen dramedies (the schmaltzy and the acerbic). Yet in the end, all “The Spectacular Now” really proves is that the lesson plan for teen movies hasn’t changed much over the years, even if the crowd is convinced it’s outsmarted the formula by now.
For starters, the film’s protagonist, Sutter (Miles Teller), is a would-be charmer in the make of Lloyd Dobbler, but from most angles he just comes across like a blotto version of Ben Savage or Shia LeBoeuf on a bad day. Like LeBoeuf, Sutter is more grating than he is charismatic, but he doesn’t notice, and good luck anyway getting that through to a guy , who subsides on fake PBR tall boys (offered in an alternate brand, but the logo is unmistakable to a habitual drinker) and Big Gulps spiked with hard alcohol.
Unfortunately for him, his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), does notice. She breaks up with him early into the film, a move which sends him reeling, until he winds up passed out on the front lawn of Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), the not-so-hot-because-she-wears-her-hair-up-in-a-ponytail girl from school, who he’s just happened to never notice before.
Naturally, Aimee and Sutter hit it off and an unlikely friendship forms between the pair. For Sutter, who isn’t so scholastically inclined and is content to party and collect minimum wage in place of finishing the personal essay on his college applications, the only thing worth focusing on is the here and now. But Aimee, classically book smart and endowed with a deep sense of familial obligation, has her sights set on the future.
What’s in the cards for this duo post-graduation? Right from the start, neither is working overtime to convince the other that theirs is a relationship worth investing heavily in, and that’s supposed be the idea. Although the writing is on the wall for Aimee and Sutter, the two draw closer to one another, and not in a way that you might expect. Things are left unspoken between them, and even a watershed moment like their first kiss – swapped poetically between swigs from a flask – passes by with little fanfare. These two might be young, but we learn quickly that they lost their innocence a long time ago.
As the lead, Teller pushes through the film’s stilted dialogue and attempts to conjure up some of the wit and magnetism of a young Cusack, but it feels forced. Where Teller misses the mark, the supporting cast picks up the pieces and brings some much-needed warmth to the otherwise waterlogged script. Larson is surprisingly effective as the misunderstood ex, who sees Sutter for exactly who and what he really is. For her part, Woodley does a decent job of turning her character’s long pauses and vacant stares into something akin to emoting, although sometimes that seems less clear.
And in a bit of stunt casting, there are several blink-and-you missed-them cameos from actors who are too good to be here in the first place.
From teen movie royalty Jennifer Jason Leigh, who appears briefly on-screen as Sutter’s overworked mother, to Bob Odenkirk of “Breaking Bad” fame, who has a minor role as Sutter’s blissfully oblivious boss, “The Spectacular Now” has most of its talent on the sidelines.
Andre Royo, who is best known for portraying the role of Bubbles on the HBO series “The Wire,” chews on what scenery he can as Sutter’s fast-talking teacher, but doesn’t have nearly enough presence to elevate the film.
Before his death, film critic Roger Ebert reviewed “The Spectacular Now,” and while his fast-declining health is all too apparent in the review, he lauded the film for its realistic depiction of 18-year-olds, who were neither crippled by irony nor treated as cartoons of their real-life counterparts, which says something.
And while he’s got a point – the kids I knew in high school weren’t too literate in pop culture unless we’re keeping it real here about “Grey’s Anatomy,” and chances are they weren’t at your alma mater, either – Ebert, along with most popular critics, misses out on the big point here.
The characters in “The Spectacular Now” may be given over to awkward pauses, poor life choices and loveless sex sometimes, just like the rest of us, but that doesn’t make them anymore authentic than they would be in a slick production ala “She’s All That,” especially if the script they exist in is already so damn bad to begin with.
The truth is, when it comes to teen, popcorn flicks, the audience keeps getting older – literally and figuratively – but the tropes stay the same age. One side just hasn’t realized it yet.
Shayna Murphy can be contacted at email@example.com.