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Sundance: Shailene Woodley shines in otherwise dull 'Spectacular Now'

By Travis Poppleton

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24 2013 4:31 p.m. MST

"The Spectacular Now"

Wilford Harewood

Enlarge photo»

There seems to be a genuine disconnect between Tim Tharp’s heartbreaking novel, “The Spectacular Now,” and the uninspired events strung together in James Ponsoldt’s like-titled film version which debuted this week at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Somewhere in the conversion from text to film, Ponsoldt decided to take the tragic, first-person account of high school alcoholic Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and view it from the eyes of an unsympathetic spectator.

The approach was a potentially clever decision, as it highlights the damage caused to those emotionally invested in Sutter, such as social outcast Aimee Finicky, played by the charming Shailene Woodley. But the apathetic approach may lead many audience members to dislike the troubled character, making them feel as if they’ve been forced into an especially long road trip with a guy they never wanted to meet in the first place.

Exploring the closing months of his high school career, “The Spectacular Now” takes a familiar look at the ups and downs of teenage relationships and the decisions affecting them.

Beginning with his ex-girlfriend Casidy (Brie Larson), Sutter expects those closest to him to forget about tomorrow and live with him in the moment. But Sutter isn’t enjoying some zen or spiritual outlook on life. Rather, he uses his live-in-the-now mantra as an excuse to shirk responsibility and do whatever feels good at the time.

As Sutter sees Casidy moving on, becoming more interested in taking responsibility for her life away from high school, he turns his attention to Aimee, a girl with almost no social experience and easily manipulated by his charm.

Aimee is eager to accept the attention, and begins giving more of herself to the carefree and reckless Sutter. But instead of trapping her in Sutter's crumbling world and heedless lifestyle, Aimee’s new validation gives her the courage to do things she wasn’t willing to try before. And like Casidy, she is ready to move into a bigger world. But then she is confronted by her new companion’s feckless nature.

It is in the relationship between Aimee and Sutter that “The Spectacular Now” shows the most potential of transcending after-school-special status and becoming something important. Woodley gives one of the best performances of the festival, and had the story rested on her shoulders, “Spectacular” would have become an irresistible crush for audiences. But instead, like the film’s protagonist, “The Spectacular Now” isn’t interested in being anything more than what it is, which is a promising supporting cast looking for a movie in which to be amazing.

“The Spectacular Now” will definitely receive an R rating if it finds a commercial audience. In the question and answer session after the film, Ponsoldt said that he wanted to take a story with adult situations and place it in a teenager’s world. However interesting that might seem, it comes with the four-letter dialogue, intoxication and sexual exploration found in other grown-up movies that take themselves too seriously.

In the end, “The Spectacular Now” contributes nothing to the already long list of teen dramas aspiring to be the next “Breakfast Club.” The cast can’t overcome Ponsoldt’s detached approach to storytelling and unfortunate handling of some otherwise significant material. Woodley’s performance, however, makes it worth not writing off.

Travis has been writing tech and film reviews for Deseret News and KSL.com since 2010, and continues to contribute coverage for the Sundance Film Festival and other live events here in Utah. You can contact Travis at TSPoppleton@gmail.com.

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