Filmed in and around Athens, Ga., but not necessarily set in Athens, The Spectacular Now (2013) creates a paradoxical tension for the viewer who knows and lives in the places the film displays. We want on the one hand to connect the events and people of the film with those places, but the film doesn’t necessarily encourage connections. And although, according to director James Ponsoldt, filming in Athens allowed him to make use of emotional resonances stirred up by the images of his childhood and adolescence, the film isn’t really about his hometown. It’s about a small and not always charming small town where the characters live and which most of them want to escape.
Ponsoldt has an impressive ability to create characters who don’t come across as Hollywood actors pretending to be normal people. We saw this clearly in one of his earlier films, Smashed (2012), and there is little that is glamorous about the two main characters in this newer film. Sutter (Miles Teller) has scars on his neck. Aimee (Shailene Woodley) has bumps on her face, and she’s slender without the emaciation of a starlet model. Neither is heavily made up. Allie lives in a small, nondescript home. Ponsoldt, in an after-film question and answer session, credited the intelligence of the actors in understanding their characters and the importance of making them “normal.” However, he clearly insisted on their normalcy, so that his film would give us characters we could be interested in, even identify with, not on a wish fulfillment level but on that of personal experience.
Let me be clear. The main characters Sutter and Aimee are eighteen-year-old graduating high school seniors. It’s been a long, long time since I was their age, or lived through the kinds of experiences they have. I don’t automatically identify with them, especially Sutter, who’s conflicted and complicated. Amy’s innocence, her willingness to overlook Sutter’s failings (except, perhaps, in the film’s final moment) seemed to me a bit much. But Ponsoldt makes these characters credible, and in the end you care about them because he’s made it possible on some level for you to understand and empathize with them as real human individuals.
Characters drive this film, just as they drove Smashed. Ponsoldt is a gifted filmmaker. His comments following the showing of The Spectacular Now at Athens Ciné (Athens, GA) made clear how steeped he is in film tradition. He is highly articulate and his intelligence certainly comes across in the film. Yet his background and training are not a hindrance in the film. The only direct influence I saw in The Specatcular Now was Say Anything (1989, dir. Cameron Crowe). Its two main characters—a goofball, directionless male and an intelligent, high-achieving young woman—are similar to Aimee and Sutter in this film. Sutter resembled John Cusack of Say Anything in both appearance and personality.