The Spectacular Now review

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It’s hard to hate The Spectacular Now, and I don’t, but it is somewhat problematic. Since its release at Sundance earlier this year, the film has garnered rave reviews, most of it deserved. I suppose an engaging story, strong performances from its leads, go a long way toward masking its less glaring flaws, but there it is.   

Like The Perks of Being a Wallflowerwhich I prefer–before it, The Spectacular Now paints a nostalgic, emotionally stark picture of high school. Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, Spectacular tells the story of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), popular class clown with a heart of a gold (and liver of steel) who unexpectedly falls for the shy, naive Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley).  On the surface, Keely and Finecky seem to have absolutely  nothing in common. He’s outgoing, a bit overconfident, and can’t seem to muster up much passion for anything beyond the present moment of his life. Aimee is a hard-working student, wilting in the background both at school and at home, and could do with a higher dose of self-esteem. But upon closer inspection, it’s clear why these two would gravitate toward each other. Both have endured lonely childhoods, free of paternal guidance, and both have first-hand experience with the effects of substance abuse. Sutter, for his part, is a burgeoning alcoholic, and Aimee’s father overdosed on painkillers in their home.

Miles Teller & Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now (2013)

Miles Teller & Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now (2013)

One of the best things about the film is how realistically it portrays high school students in all their complexities and frailties. Sadly, Aimee is a girl many audience members will recognize. They’ll either know someone like her or be her themselves. Sutter becomes her first boyfriend and it’s an iffy bond from the start. Their relationship is practically characterized by drunken stupors and swapping decanters. Aimee desperately clings to Sutter, who is still in love with his ex-girlfriend (Brie Larson), even after a particularly shocking incident (which I won’t disclose here) that really should’ve woken her up. Sutter, meanwhile, grapples with his own demons, and though he clearly cares about Aimee, he also continues to hurt her in some very real, damaging ways.  I suppose one good thing about all this is that it’s not very far from reality. It’s not hard to believe that a person with low self-esteem could find themselves in such a toxic relationship; more to the point, this was or is probably reality for a lot of people sitting in the audience. What I resent is this being upheld as a relationship even worth fixing, especially when the people in question have yet to get their shit together.

I think my biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t really offer anything new to the genre, which would be fine, except it also isn’t all that heartwarming or charming either. As well-acted as it is, the characters are nowhere near as endearing as they seem to believe they are, and given the story’s dark themes–alcohol abuse, drug addiction, abusive relationships–the sunny,lighthearted tone of the film is at jarring odds with its subject matter.

Made by some of independent film’s current luminaries James Ponsoldt (who directed last year’s Sundance darling Smashed) and written by the 500 Days of Summer guys Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, it’s hardly going to be a bad film. Spectacular is a simple story, executed moderately well, with solid performances from Woodley and Teller, and speaks specifically to this generation’s lonely, masked, fatherless kids, with eyes too worldly and cynical for their years.

3 out of 5 *

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Ain’t Them Bodies Saints review

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One of my favorite Flannery O’Connor quotes goes a little something like this: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”  It’s from Wise Blood, and it’s an epigraph that would not be out of place in the title cards of David Lowery‘s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (alongside the actual title card: This was in Texas…) In fact, the whole time I was watching this film, I was reminded of O’Connor and Carson McCullers, those queens of Southern Gothic and their dark homegrown fairytales. But first a little context: That quote from Wise Blood comes from Hazel Motes, encouraging individualism in his followers and nixing the idea of any possible redemption. But somehow it makes me think of Casey Affleck‘s Bob Muldoon on his perilous odyssey back home to his beloved Ruth (Rooney Mara) and the daughter he’s never held.  Here the quote would take on a more obvious, superficial, perhaps even cliched meaning: Sometimes it’s not the destination or the starting point; it’s the journey.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

It’s hard to pin down why exactly I think this is a good movie. The story is not particularly exciting or even satisfying. At the beginning of the film, Bob and Ruth are caught after an armed robbery and engage in a standoff with local police. Ruth accidentally shoots someone, but Bob heroically takes the fall and is sentenced to an elongated prison term. Ruth, meanwhile, gives birth to their daughter and raises the girl alone. Bob spends his years writing her elegiac letters and longing for the moment they are reunited, which he seeks to precipitate by breaking out of prison.

From a technical standpoint, the film is almost flawless. The cinematography and the score are pitch perfect, and all the actors turn in careful, measured performances. Mara and Affleck receive much needed support from Nate Parker as Sweeter, an old accomplice of Bob’s; Ben Foster as Patrick Wheeler, the policeman Ruth shot and who harbors a crush on her; and most impressively Keith Carradine as Skerritt, an ambiguous paternal figure to Bob and Ruth.

That said, I felt like Lowery set out to achieve something he couldn’t really deliver on. I left the theater wondering what the point of it all was. What was the deeper truth that I was meant to take away from watching Bob dodge policemen and bounty hunters all in the name of love? What insight into the human experience did I gain? I’m still not quite sure. I know that for whatever reason, seeing Ruth hold her baby daughter for the first time was nothing short of magical. Likewise, seeing her, guilt-ridden and heartbroken, pick up the pieces of her life for the sake of her daughter  is portrayed exquisitely by Mara and it’s these moments–where Ruth reads to her little girl, and tells her how her father used to bop bears on the nose–that are some of the film’s most affecting.

Mara as Ruth Guthrie in Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Mara as Ruth Guthrie in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Thematically, all the characters seem to be willing to sacrifice a lot in the name of love. I can’t tell you how without giving away some very important spoilers and it’s much better to watch it all unfold anyway. But given that, Bob needs no redemption. So what is it that makes his journey so compelling? Perhaps it’s our craving for happy endings and seeing the noble rewarded. Poetic justice is hard to come by in real life, and it’s hard to come by here, too. Bob is thwarted at almost every turn. But that tension is where most of the drama comes in. David Foster Wallace once said, “Part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience…we all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own…we become less alone inside.”  In this way, I think Ain’t Them Bodies Saints succeeds as well as could be hoped for. 

4 out of 5*

The Brownest Eyes: African-American Girlhood on Screen

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Every year, the all mighty AMPAS deign to recognize (not reward, mind you) one little indie film that could, and last year it was Benh Zeitlin‘s directorial debut Beasts of the Southern Wild. Based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play  Juicy and Delicious about a little boy who watches his father get sicker as the world comes to an end, Beasts of the Southern Wild remains largely the same wild, magical tale, about a little girl instead. Then 26-year-old Zeitlin (now 30 ) shot with a small production crew and cast locals in his starring roles. Quvenzhané Wallis delivers, at just five-years-old, a weighty performance as the indomitable Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry is just as mesmerizing and heartbreaking as her ill father Wink.

Hushpuppy and Wink live on a fictional Louisiana island called The Bathtub, and share a close, if unconventional bond. Hot-headed Wink actively implements the “tough love” philosophy with his young daughter, toting her around roughly by her shorts and sneering at any “delicate” behavior on her part. In one memorable scene, he tells her to “Beast it!” while she’s eating a plate of crab legs, and after following his instructions, screams, “Who’s the man?” Hushpuppy replies appropriately, “I‘m the man!”

Director Benh Zeitlin and Quvenzhané Wallis filming

Director Benh Zeitlin and Quvenzhané Wallis filming

But it isn’t long before the fragile walls of Hushpuppy’s world start to crumble and the outside comes creeping in–literally. As a deadly storm approaches, many of the Bathtub’s tight-knit community leave. Prehistoric boar-like creatures called “Aurochs,” recently released by melting icecaps, accompany the storm. Meanwhile, poor Hushpuppy is left to make sense of the disarray as best she can.

Easily the best thing about this film is that it’s entirely Hushpuppy’s perspective. Everything is filtered through her curious, childlike gaze, elevating an otherwise simple story about a girl coming to grips with the end of her world as she knows it to a magical odyssey to self-discovery quite unlike anything we’ve seen on screen before. She’s at an age where she’s in awe of almost everything. Our first glimpse of Hushpuppy is her wandering around, fascinated, after the animals in her yard. “All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beating and squirting and talking to each other the ways I can’t understand,” she narrates thoughtfully in a voice-over. “Most of the time they probably be saying: I’m hungry, or I gotta poop. But sometimes, they be talking in codes,” she says, a bird pressed softly to her ear so she can better hear its heartbeat.

 Part-fable, part-coming-of-age story, Hushpuppy’s journey doesn’t shatter that touching innocence so much as it brings her to poignant revelations like, “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.” And each time her strength is tested, she confronts the task head-on. Never has courage been so beautiful as the moment Hushpuppy stares down an Auroch at least four times her size. So even when we’re kicked in the gut by the ending, we get the feeling that this kid is definitely going to be alright. She need not be heartless nor callous to be strong; she is brave and unafraid of life’s uncertainties.

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy

Ben Richardson‘s mesmerizing cinematography and the soaring, powerful score composed by Zeitlin himself and Dan Romer, go a long way into creating Hushpuppy’s world. Though The Bathtub is an impoverished community, there’s not one ugly shot or awkward frame. Everyplace captured holds an otherworldly aura, and the music glides smoothly from the tentative, fanciful piano in “End of the World” to the roaring, jazz-inspired epic “Once There Was a Hushpuppy,” echoing our narrator’s journey from timidity and fear to unshakable strength.

The film opened to widespread acclaim and universal love from critics and audiences alike. Zeitlin went on to garner an Academy Award nomination for directing and the adorable Miss Wallis became the youngest actress ever nominated in the Best Actress category. I will never forgive AMPAS for not nominating the film’s incredible, jubilant score (or Cloud Atlas’s for that matter), but hopefully more people sought Beasts out after every one of its deserved accolades.

The Brownest Eyes: African-American Girlhood on Screen

Half Nelson

Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson (2006)

Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson (2006)

By the time I watched Half Nelson, I had long been a Ryan Gosling fanatic, and much as I’d like to say it was the gripping storytelling that made me return to the theater at least three more times, that probably wouldn’t be totally true. Hey, I was sixteen. Years later, Half Nelson holds up well on rewatch, and I doubt I would’ve been able to sit through the film (which earned Gosling his first Academy Award nomination) that many times if it hadn’t been good.

 Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden‘s engaging, heartfelt story about the unexpected friendship between crack-addicted middle school teacher Dan Dunne (Gosling) and his thirteen-year-old student Drey (Shareeka Epps) opened to massive critical acclaim for good reason. Alongside Gosling’s beautiful face, the film featured incredible breakthrough performances from Epps and Anthony Mackie, a fresh look at the American education system at work (or not) in the inner city,  and a flawfree soundtrack from Broken Social Scene.

Based on Fleck and Boden’s 19-minute short Gowanus, Brooklyn (starring Epps in the same role), Half Nelson is as much Dan’s story as it is Drey’s, for their worlds are inextricably intertwined, even beyond the classroom. Dan regularly scores dope from guys in Drey’s neighborhood, so a turn in the relationship may well have been inevitable.  Addicts aren’t exactly known for being careful, meticulous people. Regardless, at the heart of the matter is two lonely people, mired in a world dominated by drugs, who find in each other a glimmer of light at the end of what must’ve seemed a never-ending tunnel of darkness.

Drey & Dan in Half Nelson (2006)

Drey & Dan in Half Nelson (2006)

Drey begins the film already a sort of favorite pupil of Dunne’s. She’s a star in his history class and on the school basketball team, which he coaches. She also seems to nurse a small, harmless crush on him, as adolescents tend to do when they have a young teacher. But when she catches him getting high in the girls’ bathroom one night after a game, the student-teacher dynamic takes a heavy blow. Whether that’s ultimately a good thing is left up to you to decide. Drey finds in Dan the father/older brother figure sorely missing from her life. Her father is absent; her brother is in prison for dealing drugs at the behest of Frank (Mackie), who, perhaps guiltily–certainly selfishly– attempts to big brother Drey himself while her real brother is locked up. By the third act, the film becomes a fight between the charismatic drug dealer and the troubled drug addict for the soul of this young girl.

Commendably, Fleck and Boden reveal the complicated turmoil of “the ghetto” through Drey’s solemn, somber eyes rather than Dan’s. And through her, her world is imbued with a complexity rarely afforded inner city life. You see, Frank is not simply a “dumb, drug-dealing thug,” he’s a mentor, well-spoken and friendly, and often gives Drey and her mother money for their household. He even drives Drey around the neighborhood looking for her bike after it’s stolen. And her mother is not neglectful out of sheer bitter spite or callousness; she’s a single parent, working odd hours as an EMT. When she does get home, her time is Drey’s, and it is into her lap that Drey crawls, welcomed, when the tears finally come.

None of this would be possible without the harrowing performance Epps delivers. She navigates the film with a stony dignity, learned, probably, from years of helplessness and loss. The real beauty of her performance lies in those despairing, watchful eyes, eyes afraid to expect too much–considering how often she’s been let down before–but keep hoping anyway. Near the end of the film, Dan and Drey share a hugely emotional scene, though neither one speaks. She and Gosling command the screen regardless. All over his face there’s a pathetic surrender written, and while Epps’ face remains tight, her eyes betray the disappointment  and pain she feels inside. It’s remarkable to watch the transformation on screen, but there is no denying how powerful it is and how powerful Epps’ performance is in that moment.

Gosling in Half Nelson

Gosling in Half Nelson

The real pity of it all is that both Dan and Drey are stuck, almost hopelessly, going round and round on a self-destructive wheel with little means to escape. The title is inspired by a wrestling move where one arm is passed under the opponent’s arm from behind and the hand is applied to the neck. They each see-saw in their relationship between the protector and the protected, but how can one save the other when neither can seem to save themselves?

Thankfully, Boden and Fleck don’t go the happily-ever-after route, but they also don’t go full-on darkness. The entire film is tinged with cynicism and optimism in equal doses, and the ending feels the same. Things don’t look as bright as they should, but there is hope, and for now, that’s enough.