Rated R. Our ratings: V -0; L -4; S -5/N-1. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.
But when he came to himself
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, director James Ponsoldt’s delightful coming of age film has been compared to those in which John Hughe’s so skillfully explored teenage angst for an earlier generation. The major difference is that most teenagers won’t be admitted to this film because of the film’s R-rating. The two love scenes depicted definitely earn this rating, but they are not milked for eroticism, there being little actual nudity involved. The title is interesting, at first sight perhaps suggesting teacher John Keating’s “Carpe diem” in Dead Poet’s Society, but as we listen to this film’s high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) talk about his wanting to stay in the now where he is enjoying himself so immensely, we perceive quite a touch of irony in it.
The film begins with Sutter at his computer desk trying to answer on a college entrance exam what hardship he has faced and overcome. This sets off a series of flashbacks in which we see that he is an under achiever who has always been the life of the party. Popular with his fellow students, he is not a jock, nor much of anything else—just a guy who can make friends laugh and enjoy themselves. He does hold down a part-time job at a clothing store, where he has a winning way with customers—though we worry over his frequent sips from the whiskey flask he always carries with him. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) is also popular, though we soon see, a lot more committed than he—I doubt very much that he has thought about their getting married. And he likes to spike his soft drinks with liquor that he finds easy to obtain through charm and guile. Sutter’s best quality, one that makes us root for him, is that he likes to help people.
It is while helping his overly shy friend hook up with a girl that results in Cassidy dumping him. Sutter is so upset that he drinks himself to oblivion, waking up the early the next morning on a front lawn to find a worried Aimee (Shailene Woodley) standing over him. She is relieved that he is alive, but has no idea as to where his car is. She needs to move on to finish delivering newspapers for her irresponsible mother, who actually is in charge of the route. Sutter talks her into taking him along to help toss out the rolled up papers and to try to find where he left his car.
Aimee attends the same school, but Sutter cannot recall her name because they did not move in the same circles. He is drawn to the shy and thus a bit withdrawn girl not for romantic reasons—he still hopes to patch things up with Cassidy—but in order to help her come out of her shell. As they get to know each other, he admires her choice of science/fantasy literature. Learning of her dream of going to a Philadelphia college, a plan her mother’s opposes, he urges her to stand up to her. We learn that she, as well as Sutter, has grown up without the presence of a father.
Getting Cassidy back proves more than problematic. At the party to which he takes Aimee he discovers that his former girlfriend has moved on, dating now a student who is a football star and a serious student. (I liked the fact that though this student is black, no one indicated that this was unusual or notable. Maybe we, or at least Hollywood, really are making some racial progress.) Sutter becomes more involved with Aimee, inviting her now to the prom, but it is obvious that she takes their relationship more seriously than he does. Again we worry about his drinking when the prom gift he gives her is a small silver flask.
Aimee, encouraged by Sutter stands up to her mom concerning going away to college. She returns the favor by helping Sutter with his concern to contact his absent father (Kyle Chandler). His mom Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a nurse, has always refused to tell him anything about the man, and his married sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has gone along with their mother’s refusal. He finally persuades Holly to give him the information, and Aimee agrees to accompany him on the three-hour drive. There follows the most poignant scene in the film, one which almost ends in disaster—and which leads at last to Sutter’s coming to himself.
Back to the title again: Sutter seems like a modern day Peter Pan in his clutching at “the spectacular now.” His initial total disregard for the future is appropriate for a hedonist, perhaps someone whose motto is “Eat, drink, and be merry”—and note the rest of that famous dictum is left off because his immersion in the Now blinds him to his mortality. On the other hand, Sutter’s Now is anything but spectacular. He is failing geometry, which threatens his graduation; girlfriend Cassidy has broken with him; his longing to connect with his absent father has been thwarted by his mother, whom he does not appreciate; and he is gradually sinking into the downward spiral of alcohol dependency, which in turn has led to his losing the job he enjoys. The film does a spectacular job of bringing us into the life of a teenager whose great potential might be destroyed, with the boy following in the hollow footsteps of a father whose knowledge of his failure is so painful that he must drown it in alcohol. To his credit, Sutter tries to break with Aimee, believing that he can only bring her down into his world. (Maybe he remembers the gift of the flask, something that Aimee also is now using too much.)
The writing (by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Brown) and acting are so good that this would have been an excellent film for church youth leaders to use, but there are those two sex scenes, this film like most Hollywood productions assuming “everybody’s doing it.” (At least we see Aimee supplying Sutter with a condom.) Thus, this is a dubious choice to show at the church when the film becomes available on DVD. Should you believe, as I do, that it is one of the best films to explore the teen experience since John Hughes was at work, be sure to bring in the parents and explain why you want to use it. In the meantime, simply enjoy it—or maybe, after careful explanation, even work up a theater party of parents and teens.
The full review with a set of 8 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the Sep/Oct issue of Visual Parables, which will be available on Sep. 23 when VP’s new site is launched.