Chuck Koplinski: 'Spectacular Now' a realistic look at teens

Chuck Koplinski: 'Spectacular Now' a realistic look at teens

I grew up during the age of the John Hughes film, and I seemed to be the only one who didn't jump on the bandwagon that proclaimed him the voice of my generation.

While everyone was raving about how "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" were timely movies that accurately portrayed the laments of the displaced generation of the 1980s, I kept wondering who the angsty teens in these films actually represented.

They sure didn't act like anyone I knew, and they certainly, with their upper-middle-class surroundings, didn't run in the circles I did.

Sure, the problems the characters faced of feeling alienated were commonplace, but the disconnect between the world they lived in and my own made Hughes' movies seem disingenuous, with the impact of the issues he was examining muted because of the films' settings. There was a calculated quality to the director's work that prevented me from accepting any of his movies as being as genuine as others took them to be.

By some miracle, James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" achieves the sense of honesty that proved elusive in Hughes' films. There's a sense of realism here — or as much as can be expected in a fictional movie — that provides a degree of recognition for viewers that allows them immediately to buy in to the troubles of two ordinary teens struggling with falling in love for the first time.

While some of the credit should go to writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber in their adaptation of the novel by Tim Tharp, it's the two leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, who bring such honesty to their roles that make this a cut above other films of this sort.

Teller is Sutter, a high school senior who is the life of the party wherever he goes, primarily because he puts forth the notion that he doesn't have a care in the world. He's got a beautiful girlfriend, an easy job at a men's clothing store, he's "100 percent serious about not being serious," and that carefree attitude makes him the envy of his peers.

Trouble is, deep down Sutter knows that he's nothing but hot air, and to take the edge off being a fraud, he drinks. Whiskey is his drug of choice, and it's never far away. However, after a particularly bad night, he wakes up on the lawn of Aimee (Woodley), a wallflower younger than he whom he never really noticed before.

Yet, after helping him find his car as well as lending a hand with his math homework, the young lady is on Sutter's radar, and before you know it, he has asked her to prom.

As we see their relationship grow, we become increasingly aware that this movie is special because none of the key moments in the film, which would have been embellished with music or grand gestures in lesser productions, seem forced. Ponsoldt provides a deft touch, creating a tone that's conveyed by the natural performances from his two leads.

Teller and Woodley are able to convey a sense of discovery about each other and their experiences as they each awkwardly navigate love for the first time. There's a sense of confusion, a sense of wonder, a sense of excitement and a sense of resignation at various times — and none of it feels calculated or manipulative, but rather honest in a way that's too difficult for other movies to capture.

While the two youngsters are quite good, they are ably supported by veterans throughout, particularly Kyle Chandler, who plays Teller's wayward father, a cautionary symbol for the young man if he's wise enough to see it, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his mother, who doesn't really seem to know how to handle her son.

They ably bring a sense of quiet dramatic heft to their scenes, but this is Teller and Woodley's show. They hold nothing back in bringing these complex teens to life, and while there may be times when we don't particularly like or agree with what they do, we recognize ourselves in Sutter and Aimee as their faults and assets prove to be all too familiar to ignore.

'The Spectacular Now' (3-1/2 stars out of 4)

Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bob Odenkirk, Whitney Goin, Nicci Faires and Ava London.

Directed by James Ponsoldt; produced by Michelle Krumm, Andrew Lauren and Shawn Levy; screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber.

An A24 Films release. 95 minutes. Rated R (alcohol use, language and some sexuality). At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

"Riddick" a bit of B movie heaven. (3 stars) While some may say that Will Smith and Tom Cruise are the biggest movie stars on the planet, I'd make a case that Vin Diesel is right on their heels.

As proof, I submit his latest action epic "Riddick," a sequel that only a star with major clout could get made. After all, the previous entry in this left-for-dead series, "The Chronicles of Riddick," was made in 2004 and was drubbed by critics and hardly embraced by the actor's fans. However, once you've racked up billions for a studio thanks to the "Fast and Furious" franchise, you can call your shots, and if Mr. Diesel wants to make another entry in a moribund series, well, so be it.

A bigger surprise, other than the fact that this film was produced in the first place, is that it's a well-made throwback to a more modest sort of action movie. With a fraction of the budget usually allotted to a summer blockbuster ($38 million), writer/director David Twohy revels in the cheapness of the production, and the story reflects this as well.

Using "Key Largo," "Hondo," "The Thing," "Rio Bravo" and "Lost in Space" as touchstones, the filmmaker has cobbled together a plot composed of a myriad of well-worn elements and has managed to squeeze a bit more juice out of the plot points he has borrowed.

Having been exiled after being betrayed by those he reluctantly agreed to rule, Riddick (Diesel) is forced to adapt to the harsh conditions of the planet he has been left on. If the environment, which could be described as prehistoric, doesn't kill you, then its inhabitants will as flocks of savage, flying reptiles, packs of hyenas the size of great Danes and giant swimming scorpions dog our hero at every step.

Riddick is nothing if not resourceful, and as the years pass, he learns to survive, having domesticated one of the wild dogs to help him. Yet a threat presents itself that's larger than his impressive capabilities, so he triggers a distress signal in the hopes of being rescued. The plan works too well as not just one, but two ships come to his aid, one carrying a crew of bounty hunters eager to collect the price on his head, and the other with a group led by a man with a personal vendetta against Riddick.

Diesel literally carries the film on his shoulders. With the exception of a quick flashback sequence, the film's first 40 minutes go by before anyone other than the star appears on the screen. During that time, we become reacquainted with Riddick and witness how resourceful he truly is. More importantly, we become fully immersed in the hostile environment.

Without question, Diesel has presence, and it's on full display here; even when he's off screen for nearly a half-hour, his character looms large. His acting ability is often given short shrift, yet he pulls off an interesting trick here that will likely be overlooked by many. It should be kept in mind that Diesel is acting against nothing while he's on screen alone. A green screen is his backdrop, and any creature he battles is nothing more than a tennis ball on a stick that will be replaced later by a computer-generated image.

It's not Shakespeare, but the reactive performance he gives is fueled by his imagination and his ability to convince us that all he sees and battles is real helps sell the film and makes us eager to follow him on his gruesome adventure.

Twohy is deliberate in the way he executes the story and must be credited with generating considerable suspense during the film's final 40 minutes. Once Riddick and the survivors of the two ships find themselves under siege, as a terrific storm and a horde of aliens buffet them from outside, the movie becomes a claustrophobic exercise where you end up wonder`ing if the elements without will destroy the characters within before they end up killing each other.

Riddick manipulates his enemies by getting into their heads, and they end up being picked off one by one, with the tension steadily and effectively increasing. It ends up being great fun.

While it comes as no surprise that our hero ends up living to see another day, I was surprised to realize that I wouldn't mind going on another adventure with him.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to Koplinski can be reached via email at

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