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The Spectacular Now“High school sucked.”

-Me

Life after high school is very different. Since most of your social life has been built around your education for the last umpteen years, sometimes surrounded by the same individuals, shaking up that structure post-graduation can be a refreshing experience. I know it certainly was for me. However, it didn’t quite occur to me how big of a stride I had made as an individual in the four years I spent at college until I worked with high school students this past summer. I remember the moment of surprise when I walked into the cafeteria the first day and thought to myself, “Why aren’t the boys and girls sitting together?” Such gender specific separation felt foreign to my current way of thinking. And then, in that brief second, it all came rushing back. How could I possibly have forgotten? I could probably draw out a map of my entire high school’s cafeteria for you right now, and I could point out which clique sat where, it’s that vivid in my memory. (Yes, boys sat with girls on occasion, but only when relationships and status dictated such association.) In those days, it was like a sea of pubescents where one could easily identify who’s who, who’s not, and, of course it being Minnesota, the hockey team. And we would all always sit in the same spots, at the same tables, every day, because that’s how it was. It wasn’t said, but it was understood. As the days of the first week passed in our 2013 summer program, our cafeteria seemed to morph into this living, breathing model of what I remember it all being like.

If I thought that was hard to relive, I was probably unprepared for the dances I was fortunate enough to help supervise. Never have the unstated rules of high school been more apparent than in how high school students behave on (or off) the dance-floor. It’s a fascinating piece of human theatre, where hopefully the only chemicals at play are the hormones everybody seems to be firing off in all directions in the hope of securing a date, or maybe just a dance. Over in this corner, you have the group of girls who have decided to dance in a circle with each other, either because they are intimidated by the prospect of dancing anywhere near the opposite sex, or repulsed by it, and this is their supposed way of a having a good time. In the opposite corner, you have a group of guys who seem to have subscribed themselves to similar thinking, albeit more awkwardly. Avoiding the dance-floor are the ones who are too cool for dancing. The girls have dressed themselves elaborately for the occasion (some bordering on inappropriate), but they are too hot for such revelry, plus their dresses restrict them to limited movements, so they’ll sit this one out. The guys, on the other hand, have made no attempt to look presentable because they are too cool for school, or just deem dances “dumb”. Then, you have the few stragglers or loners on the floor who seem to just be off in their own little world. Front and center, you have the couples. The first timers have separated themselves at an appropriately deemed distance, and sway to the rhythm slightly, enough to suggest dancing. The comfortable couples are close. The overly comfortable ones are trying to find ways to hide their attempts at grinding or other suggestive forms of dancing. The ones you really worry about are the ones you go on patrol for, looking in empty classrooms and courtyards. This is where relationships are formed. The popular will connect with the popular, the wallflower with the wallflower, and everything else in between. The only thing that could upset this social order is the jumping of status, but there’s a reason that never happens. Things will continue to be the same. Sound familiar? I’m sure you’ve seen this all before. But why? Why are such antics so common place? What drives young individuals to so easily shift into cliques and classifiable groups? How can these individuals define themselves in an environment where everything feels already defined? At such a crucial point in their lives, where do they look to find their identity?

Given the defining characteristics, you might conclude that it must be relatively simple to make a film about high school. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they always feel believable or natural. Many current mainstream films about young people, or specifically teenagers, tend to trudge through the swamp of cliche, caricature, stock characters, and stars bordering on their thirties woefully miscast as characters a decade or so behind them in years. Though they all sustain negative stereotypes of the high school environment, the last of those is particularly irksome. On the other end of the spectrum, independent film examinations of high school can be equal offenders. They tend to border on being too artsy, and seem to relish wallowing in the over-exaggerated woes of the age, yet still fall into the same genre tropes. There is the occasional exception that strikes the right balance (last year’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower landed at number 32 on my 2012 countdown), but they are few and far between. Taking that into consideration, it’s safe to say that The Spectacular Now was nowhere near the top of my “must-see list” when I initially heard about it. Most of my film viewing experience is based on directors and actors whom I enjoy and am intrigued and challenged by, compelling stories, and critical acclaim. I’m going to be honest, I didn’t know who James Ponsoldt was until I started writing this. Though he has very little under his belt, he is apparently best known for directing the film Smashed, which was a hit at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. However, the idea of sitting through another attempt to convey the truths of adolescence didn’t particularly draw my attention, regardless of who was directing. Still, I came around to it after reading rave thoughts from sources I trust, and I’m very glad I did. I don’t know much about James Ponsoldt, or the novel on which the film is based, but The Spectacular Now might just be the most realistic portrayal of high schoolers in a long time.

At the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, The Spectacular Now and it’s stars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley were awarded the Special Jury Prize for Dramatic Acting. It’s certainly well deserved. Following up on her already promising Golden Globe nominated turn in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Woodley takes a complete one-eighty to portray shy, insecure, vulnerable Aimee, a girl who could easily blend into the background if you weren’t looking for her. Aimee is an incredibly subtle and understated character, made superbly real with honesty and detail. Woodley seems to just naturally sink into this complex, conflicted, but always slightly changing individual. She, like all of us, is strongly shaped by her environment and her interactions, and it’s a testament to Woodley’s work that we can see how each new experience effects her, even in the smallest way. There’s a nice arc to her work as well, which you might not realize until the end. As strong as Woodley is, though, the true revelation of the film, as well as central performance, has to be Miles Teller as Sutter. Sutter is the life of the party, and the guy everyone wants to know, but his outward persona is an elaborately constructed disguise to hide what he himself isn’t even initially aware of. Teller has no interest in glorifying or condemning his character’s choices, but is rather more interested in why he makes those choices, and the believability of Sutter’s actions. He’s a truly complex creation, one who reveals more and more, both to himself and the audience, as he peels back the layers to show what’s really at his core. Though he may outwardly show comfortability, there’s a true search for identity lingering beneath. It’s an incredibly complex journey that Teller must navigate, filled with discoveries and conflicts, but no moment is oversold or overplayed. Each is given the honesty it deserves, and Teller, at 26, slips into a high schooler’s world like he never left it. Though both performances are commendable in their own right, it’s their interactions with each other that add the icing to the cake and make the film something special. There’s a fantastic ebb and flow to their exchanges, and how they progressively fall in love and shape each other is startlingly honest. One need only look up a clip from the film to see a prime example of the effortless naturalism they bring out in one another, and how easily identifiable their chemistry is. I could probably go on longer about their fantastically realized relationship, but I’ll just leave you with the words of the Sundance Jury, “For two young actors who showed rare honesty, naturalism and transparency and whose performances brought up the best in each other.”

As always, you’ll find stellar actors offering support filling out the cast. The most notable performer has to be Brie Larson as Cassidy, Sutter’s former girlfriend. What could have easily become window dressing in another film, instead is an integral character that constantly effects the central relationship, and what could have easily become archetype, in the hands of Larson, is a challenging, conflicted girl. Though she isn’t in much of the film, Larson adds a significant weight to her interactions with Teller, hinting at the significant relationship that is past.  2012 has been a breakout year for Larson, with great supporting work in this and in Don Jon (she’s hilarious), as well as her stunning lead turn in Short Term 12 (a film and performance I will go in greater length and depth about towards the end of the countdown), and she has appropriately picked up accolades as “Breakout Star of the Year”. I’m hoping she will continue to receive more opportunities to bring her honest work to a wealth of characters. Kyle Chandler, who himself has had an exceptional last few years (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, The Wolf of Wall Street, Super 8), is another welcome presence, though I think revealing his character might be a bit of a spoiler. I will say, however, that his particular portrayal might be the most conflicted of the film. Alternately worthy of empathy and repulsion, he is a troubled lost soul, and his brief, but notable presence is enough to shake up everything that follows. Also, for those individuals who enjoy this new “Golden Age of Television”, you’ll probably recognize Andre Royo (The Wire) and Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) in their small, but affecting roles.

I could focus on other specific elements, but in this instance, what stand out the most are the screenplay and direction, because they are both responsible for the film’s incredibly honest voice. Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, most notably known for their clever screenplay (500) Days of Summer, offer up a less flashy take on the challenges of love and identity. There are so many moments that could have become contrived, but dealt with honestly, are surprisingly affecting. Sutter and Aimee’s initial meeting on somebody’s front lawn isn’t really a meet cute at all, but rather an awkward exchange between two individuals who aren’t sure how to behave around each other, though they confess to knowing each other. Their first lunchroom chat, geometry tutoring session, first party, and especially their exchange about their parents and swearing, all add layers of detail and subtlety to their relationship and connection. Their first kiss isn’t particularly romantic or drawn out, but a moment that simply sneaks up on them and the audience, and catches us all by surprise. The first time they have sex with each other is substantially clumsy and clunky, and ultimately believable. Their first fight stems not from a desire to hurt the other person, but a desire to prevent that person from harm. So much that is part of the story revolves around Sutter and Aimee’s relationship, but to define the film as simply a love story is selling it short, because there’s a lot more at play here. There’s conflicted feelings about past relationships and past choices that gnaw at the characters consistently. There’s the overwhelming concept of the future, and the choices that come with becoming an adult. There’s an undercurrent that flows through much of the film, only hinted at until close to the ending when it rears its ugly head. But most of all, there’s a real examination of how young people approach their identity.

The film is appropriately told through the framework of Sutter’s struggle to identify one of his biggest challenges and limitations, as well as how he overcame it, as part of a college essay. He lives his life with an ever present outer shell that is both outwardly engaging and constantly defensive. It’s there to repel off anything that might do damage, but be effectively cool about it in the process. He strives to live in the “Now”, but it’s also a shield against dealing with issues of the past or the future. Sutter strives to use quick fixes and a rebounding persona to ensure everyone, but most importantly himself, that he is always doing fine. But he’s not just fine, he’s incredibly torn. He’s torn about his relationships. He’s torn about his future. He’s torn about his relationship with his father. Most of all, he’s afraid to suggest that there’s anything beneath his carefree attitude, until it finally sneaks up on him. Though Sutter has always been the life of the party, it finally dons on him that he’s also viewed as a joke. His carefree nature has conveyed to others his disregard for the future or consequences. Nobody takes him seriously. He’s going nowhere, they deem, and they’re probably right. It isn’t until a chance encounter with someone from his past that it finally dawns on Sutter where this road is taking him. Fearing for Aimee’s safety should she continue in a relationship with him, as well as trying to tackle his own anguish, Sutter harshly kicks her out of his life, even as she struggles to hang on to the relationship that has meant the most to her in her young life. Shaken by current events, Sutter falls deeper and deeper into his dangerous coping mechanisms. In a truly heartbreaking moment, he finally admits to his mother that he has become the exact person he was trying not to be. By shutting out his problems, he has shut the door on himself; stuck in a period of ever sinking stasis. He is the one standing in his own way.

On the cusp of becoming adults, young people feel an overwhelming amount of pressure from countless sources. With so many expectations bearing down on you constantly from your family, your peers, and society, how do you survive? How can you become your own person? Sutter combats the outer world by choosing to internalize not just all his fears, but most of his desires. It’s a mask that hides who he really is. And why wouldn’t he? I would imagine there are many similar young people who behave in the same way, hoping it guards them from the challenges they feel unprepared to face. Sutter considers himself his greatest obstacle, but I think the source of the issue is much larger and obscure. Society doesn’t allow adolescents a chance to really define themselves before we thrust the world’s issues and future responsibilities on their shoulders. Rather than choosing who they are themselves, they are boxed in by other’s judgements. They are deemed destined for success or failure, popular or unpopular, extroverted or introverted, attractive or unattractive, as if all of this makes up who you are as a person. It’s ridiculous to think about, and yet this trend isn’t just present in high school, but also in society. It seems then, that Bowling for Soup’s conclusion that “High School Never Ends” appears to be rooted in some significant truth. It comes back to that thought my friend shared with me almost a year ago, “You’re caught between who you want to be, and who you think you should be.” How can young people possibly discover their life and their choices if others have already laid it out for them? To me, that’s what I remember high school feeling like; an environment constantly trying to cram you into a box of what it thinks you should be. And I realized, not only had these students this past summer brought this mentality with them because it was what they knew, but I was a part in sustaining that. Maybe not outwardly, but I certainly classified them on that dance floor because it reinforced my own experiences. But that’s not right or fair. Every young individual has the right to choose their own path, free of judgement or expectation. They should be able to explore their own beliefs, because how else can they truly learn? They should be able to challenge pre-conceived notions, because that’s how progress occurs. They should be able to walk up to whoever they wish and ask them for a dance, regardless of sex, orientation, perceived attractiveness, or any other ridiculously accepted factor, because a dance or social event for high schoolers shouldn’t be a torture to endure, but a wonderful opportunity to truly enjoy what it means to be young. Perhaps these young lovers I’ve seen connect and deemed immature have something right after all: an appreciation for this time in their lives. We can criticize their “puppy love”-esque behavior, but isn’t that ultimately how they learn? Aren’t our relationships with others the basis for our lives? Don’t they shape us, and vice versa? Isn’t part of what attracts you to another individual who they are? Can’t you learn something about yourself in the process, regardless of the result? We should encourage young people to seek their own identity, not hold them back or hand them our idea of it on a sticky name-tag. Maybe then, for that individual, high school might not be that time that sucked, but rather that time that they recall with fondness. Maybe then they’ll break free from constraints, and choose to sit at a different table with different peers each day. Maybe then they can have that confidence in themselves to ask that special someone out or to a dance. And maybe, just maybe, being young can be that incredibly wonderful time of self-discovery it’s meant to be.

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