The Spectacular Now

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As I was leaving the theater after seeing The Spectacular Now, directed by James Ponsoldt, I heard a group of 20-something girls talking about the film with a mix of confusion and curiosity. “I thought it was supposed to be a teen drama, but then things got…real,” one of the girls proclaimed.

Such a simple statement perfectly encompasses the joy of watching this film–a seemingly straightforward coming of age drama, which slowly reveals layers that render it both emotionally profound, and incredibly relatable. The film, based on a novel of the same name by Tim Tharp, follows a young man, Sutter Keely played expertly by Miles Teller. Sutter is the guy in high school that we all knew (and maybe even dated) but would never consider beyond senior year: silly, interested in maintaining a good buzz, and steadfastly unserious. After being unexpectedly dumped by his generically popular girlfriend, Sutter parties himself right onto the lawn of fellow high-schooler Aimee Finicky, played by Shailene Woodley. The two are quickly drawn together even though they seem to be on completely opposite sides of the social spectrum. Aimee is interested mainly in science fiction and bound for college in Philadelphia, while Sutter is resolutely stuck in the illusion of a “spectacular now” which cracks and fades as the movie chugs along and Sutter is confronted with the inevitability of having to live beyond the whiskey shots in front of him.

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The strength of the film, and the reason why it ends up feeling so refreshingly real, is in its perfectly drawn leads, Sutter and Aimee. These are two eighteen year olds who look, talk, and act, their age; their dialogue consistently awkward and unharmonious. They fumble over each other’s attempts at flirting, giggle entirely too much, and proclaim love almost immediately. Their physical contact with each other is either too delicate or overbearing, devoid of the too-perfectly orchestrated chemistry that belies most sexual encounters on screen. These are teenagers, after all, and they feel like people you knew, people you probably were.

Woodley and Teller have elevated these characters into the realm of the imperfectly real, and both show incredible promise as young actors to keep an eye on. Teller strikes you immediately as most comfortable in the comedic, but he hits the movie’s low points with elegance and restraint. Woodley, fresh faced and naïve is completely beautiful and even tragic in her optimistic belief in promises made by a boy who can’t remember to hang his mothers shirts up to dry.

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As the film progresses we delve into the reasons behind Sutter’s insistence-on-the-now persona, punctuated most clearly by a visit with his absent father, who Sutter chooses to believe is a pilot but is clearly a professional alcoholic (played by Kyle Chandler). Here is a man whose entire life has been spent living-in-the-moment to the point where he’s lost everyone and everything around him, and forces his son to pay for pitchers of beer while he takes home a woman he meets at a bar.

The encounter is just one of many that begins with promise, and ends in disappointment – and is ultimately emblematic of the films beauty. It isn’t trying to insist that anything is perfect, that anything works out, that anyone, or any couple, is special. It just is. It is a glimpse into lives that intersect, bounce off of each other, depart, and then maybe converge again. But just maybe.

The film forces us to question, to doubt, to consider Aimee and Sutter as real people who exist beyond the ninety minutes we share with them. Of course we want them to be together, of course we’d like them to ride off into the sunset (or onto the bus to Philadelphia in this case), and live happily ever after, but we also have a nagging feeling that maybe that isn’t the best thing for these characters. We’ve already seen that story, and this film just isn’t it. In fact, by the time the credits roll it’s easy to see that The Spectacular Now isn’t a story at all. It’s a window.

Written By: Sarah Dunn who is 25 and has been living in New York City for the past 8 years. A graduate of Columbia Film Studies program, she is a film-fanatic, trailer-obsessed lover of movies, and currently works as a post-production supervisor for Treehouse Pictures. She’s been known to comb through entire TV series on Netflix in a day, knows far too much about feminist film theory, and consistently prefers to dump her M&Ms inside her popcorn rather than eat them separately.

Fruitvale Station

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The howling sound of the BART train produced nostalgic feelings of my childhood growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. The sounds also re-hatched memories of the tragic event on New Years 2009; a tragedy that sparked action, eventually leading to this very film – Fruitvale Station. Opening up with real life cell phone footage from the platform of Fruitvale Station in Oakland CA, the fatal shot that ended Oscar Grants life is fired and the screen goes blank.

The film transitions into the last day of Grant’s life, giving us an intimate picture at the intricacies of the young man whose death shook the nation. In the aftermath of his death, heightened and polarized opinions of the real life man swarmed in the media. Writer and director, Ryan Coogler made sure to introduce the audience to who Grant was beyond the headlines. An exceptional performance by Michael B. Jordan humanized a multi-dimensional Grant. As a Bay Area native within Grant’s age cohort, I could not help but watch the film and think that this could have been my schoolmate, my relative, my friend.

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The essence of life is found in the lives of those we touch. This story was told from the perceptive of the relationships Grant had with the most important people in his life – his daughter, mother, girlfriend, friends, and extended family. The social reality of his character was displayed on screen, helping the audience to connect with him not as a “good” guy, or “bad” guy but as a human being.

On screen Grant affectionately and playfully connects with his daughter, Tatiana – his pride and joy. A Daddy’s girl, endearing moments of the two racing, making funny faces, being comforted when scared, and sneaking her extra fruit snacks showcased the caring father he was. A flashback to Grant’s time in prison also reveals the mistakes he once made that kept him from being the father he wanted so badly to be. It too, showed the pain of his own mother, Wanda, played by Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer, who grew tired of enduring the painful reality of visiting an incarcerated son, and comforting his daughter who could not comprehend his absence. This very flashback reminded Grant of his desire to change his life though he struggled with keeping a job and providing financial support for his family. Trying to keep a lie, we see the attempts Grant makes to right his wrongs.

A family celebration for Wanda’s birthday was the heart of the film, where the most important people in Grant’s life gathered unbeknownst to them, for the last time. Eating a traditional Gumbo dish for New Year’s Eve, the family did what we all do around the holidays-chow down with laughter and fun as their main course. Following, the BART ride to San Francisco was a fun and exciting thrill – slappin’ Mac Dre, a deceased Bay Area rapper, everyone on the train could be heard rapping, “I’m in the building and I’m feeling myself.” Anyone who has ridden BART on New Years knows the magnetic feelings of this party bus that empties into the dynamic streets of San Francisco. It’s was a celebration and Grant and friends did just that!

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One moment can change a lifetime. Throughout the film there were opportunities where one decision might have altered the fatal outcome. The looming hope of an alternate ending was present. However, a scuffle on the BART train led to the event we all hoped to escape – Grant and his friends being held on the platform by police. Even in these last few moments you can see the multi-faceted sides of Grant as he was angered by feeling unfairly targeted, while yearning so badly to get home to his family. By the time audiences witnessed the fatal shot fired, an excruciating pain accompanies. There were no dry eyes in the theater.

Following Grant’s family and friends we all anxiously waited in hope of Grant’s recovery, at Highland Hospital. Any Bay Area native knows the fear that accompanies the cold halls of this well-known trauma center. The audience joined Grant and wanted so badly to see his life work out for the best. This was our son, father, boyfriend, and friend. We had spent the last hour getting up close and personal with Grant and mourned his loss potential. What weighed heavy on our hearts was our knowledge that this was more than a movie; it was real life – a reality we dreaded.

The film closed with its final clip capturing Grant’s daughter at his 2013 Memorial service, reminding us of her immense lost.  A sorrowful feeling was partnered with hope and a call for us to cherish each moment we have with our loved ones because we never know when it will be our last.

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