It’s one part survival-at-sea drama, one part relationship drama, and you get an equal slice of both until an unforeseen ending explains why the narrative was so divided. Based on a true story, Adrift tells the journey and survival of a couple (Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin) lost at sea for 41 days after getting too close to a hurricane. Woodley takes the lead to fix the sailboat, gather supplies, tend to the grievous injuries of her boyfriend, and plot their treacherous path to Hawaii. If they’re off just a few degrees, it will be life and death. The survival half is viscerally entertaining and steady with its details, allowing the audience to get comfortable in following the steps and reasons. The camerawork by director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest) is sweeping and methodical, pulling us into the danger and isolation while creating a sterling sense of verisimilitude. The screenplay vacillates between the present and past, supplying flashbacks to fill out the romantic relationship. It’s a smart move because it allows us to immediately get into the stakes of survival while also finding room to develop the characters in a more normal setting. Plus it also makes more sense by the Tully-esque end. This is pretty much Woodley’s (HBO’s Big Little Lies) show; her secondary co-star might as well be her nipples poking through her character’s swimwear and tops. As readers may know, I’m a big fan of Woodley and the naturalism she brings to her performances, and Adrift is no exception. She can say so much through her smiles. She’s a great anchor for a storyteller. Ultimately, Adrift is a survival drama that takes a while to get going but leaves a favorable impression thanks to the acting and technical merits.
Nate’s Grade: B
There’s quite a difference when director Oliver Stone actually gives a damn with a movie, and you can tell with Snowden that he is passionate about making a compelling and accessible movie for American audiences to understand why they should be angry. He wants to lead the righteous civil liberties mob against the right perpetrators while providing an appreciative moral context to the actions of Edward Snowden, America’s most famous fugitive. That sense of purpose and drive animates Stone in a way that his recent films have not, and even though it’s far less gonzo and experimental as Stone’s quintessential catalogue, the storytelling skill is still consistently engaging and the resulting 134 minutes inform as well as entertain.
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanted to serve his country and his expertise in computers landed him in various jobs working for U.S. agencies. He discovered the abuse of surveillance over everyday citizens rubber-stamped by a FISA court meant to provide oversight. Callous private contractors would surf through thousands of collected data points, and if pressed, could justify through terrorism connections, as it seems anyone in the world is perhaps three connections away from a person of interest (consider is the really unfortunate version of the Kevin Bacon game). Snowden risks everything to reach out to a team of journalists (Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson) to tell his story and make sure the larger public will know these abuses of power.
The best compliment I can give Stone as a screenwriter and director of Snowden is that he took a thoroughly challenging scenario with few cut-and-dry answers and made an accessible movie experience that effectively conveys moral outrage and dismay. It feels like Stone the educator is leading you by the hand, taking time out to explain some of the more delicate intricacies of the murky stuff that goes on behind closed doors. I won’t exactly declare it to be an intelligent examination on the moral implications of the material, but it’s certainly a movie that lands its goal of clarity. It produces a sense of clarity for the subject and a sense of clarity for why Snowden made the decisions he did. Gordon-Levitt delivers a steadily engrossing performance, even if it takes several minutes to adjust to his distracting speaking voice. Maybe my ears are just broken but it doesn’t sound like Snowden. Fortunately, my ears did adjust accordingly. Gordon-Levitt and Stone effectively kept my attention throughout the film. I was surprised how much I found myself enjoying long stretches of this movie, even if my own stance on Snowden is less clearly defined. He talks a good talk but the reality is messy.
Given Stone’s conspiratorial history, the plot definitely comes with a distinctive point of view over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. I don’t think inherent bias in a movie or the angle taken in storytelling is inherently misguided and that all stories should be as objective as possible. Sometimes the circumstances don’t permit objectivity. Stone’s film is clearly biased but it doesn’t fall into a hagiographical hero worship of its titular figure. This is a complicated subject and deserves a proper analysis to place the real-life people in the meaningful morally ambiguous context. Snowden ultimately makes the decision to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower for what he felt were systematic abuses of government surveillance, but before that climactic decision he comes across less than a spotless martyr. His character arc is a fairly recognizable awakening of alarm and horror at the great abuses of power in the name of security. He does start off as a lifelong Republican with family members who have served in the military and different governmental bodies. He’s devastated to be medically discharged from the Army and hungry to serve his country. He’s a patriot who becomes disillusioned with the system, but he’s also rather self-involved and excuses ego with civic duty. I didn’t know how gifted Snowden was in his field, and the movie has some amusement with the wunderkind training sequences where Snowden delivers shock and awe to his stunned superiors. However, the second act becomes more than a bit protracted because Snowden keeps quitting but eventually going back to government surveillance, whether CIA or private subcontracting. This is because of the pay, sure, but it’s mainly because nobody can do what he can do. He feels important. He feels needed. He convinces himself he’s making a difference in the War on Terror, but eventually the reality of the widening peripheral of the war zone is too much to ignore for him.
This is further epitomized through the romantic subplot with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a liberal firebrand, photographer, and exotic exercise instructor. Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) does her best infusing a warm personality into what is too often the underappreciated yet overly agreeable girlfriend role. It’s a storyline meant to further humanize Snowden as well as personalize the encroaching invasions of privacy and subsequent paranoia. After he discovers that the government can activate laptops and watch oblivious citizens through webcams, Snowden can’t help but stare down his open laptop during an almost laughably forced sex scene. My reaction as Lindsay climbed aboard Snowden was exactly this: “Oh, I guess this is happening now.” She would have a greater impact if the movie did more with her character, as she is the long-suffering girlfriend who keeps accommodating his life choices. They move three times across the country for his jobs and Snowden is always unable to fully explain why he feels the pull to these tech occupations, which further frustrates a woman who just wants trust and stability. There is one interesting conversation that Lindsay offers, typifying the blasé response to spying with a “well I have nothing to hide, so who cares” rationale. Snowden is quick to admonish this line of thinking, an opinion that many still share. The other regrettable reality is that the romance is inevitably going to be the least interesting facet of this story. By going behind the curtain of American secret surveillance, we’re indulging in our collective curiosity at how exactly all these moving parts operate. To then go home and watch a couple squabble is a consistent letdown of drama.
There are a few other artistic miscues that weigh down Snowden, mostly Stone’s penchant for heavy-handed symbolism. The same instincts that allow Stone to carefully thread a knotty story are the same impulses that tell him that subtlety is for cowards. There doesn’t need to be a frame story here. I understand that select media outlets trying to break this story naturally allows for a question-and-answer framing system of flashbacks. However, very little is added besides a skeletal structure. The media members act as reactionary acolytes. It was all captured much more credibly in the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour. There’s no earthly reason for Nicolas Cage to be in this movie except for drawing financing. He plays an old CIA code-breaker and admirer of outdated technology, but really he’s there to serve as an institutional nod to Snowden. At the conclusion, when Snowden’s identity and message becomes public, there’s a scene where Cage’s character literally toasts his pupil’s actions. I would say it’s a bit much but the character is a bit much for an actor that hasn’t generally been known for restraint. When Snowden is leaving the CIA offices in Hawaii for the last time, he steps out into the light (get it? get it?) and the scene is practically rendered in slow motion as the enveloping white light fills the screen and bathes Snowden (get it? get it?). He smiles bigger than we’ve ever seen. Lastly, Stone can’t just help himself during the very end and has Gordon-Levitt replaced with the actual Edward Snowden to deliver the closure of an interview. I don’t think we needed a reminder that Snowden is an actual living person.
Snowden the man, and Snowden the movie, wanted to shake up an ignorant and apathetic American public about the dangers of unchecked power in a surveillance state, but was the mission a qualified success? Years later and Snowden living in exile in Russia, the charitable answer would be inconclusive, though the pessimist in goes further. It very well seems that the majority of the American public simply doesn’t care (out of sight out of mind). The trial over whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor seems a little moot perhaps when the larger public shrugs at the revelations of security overreach. Does a movie about a Great Man have as much resonant cultural cache if that defining act of greatness produces a shrug? I’m by no means saying we should apply a polling system to accurately measure a person’s value and accomplishments to the larger cultural and political landscape. Snowden wanted to wake the public up but we hit the snooze button. In the meantime, the movie about his exploits is fairly entertaining, so at least he has that.
Nate’s Grade: B
A return to the world of Divergent yields little forward momentum, in fact just enough to end on the point that I thought where a sequel would naturally begin. Turns out we needed a whole other movie, Insurgent, to arrive at this obvious narrative next step. Insurgent picks up with Tris (Shailene Woodley) and company on the run following the coup of two of the five social factions. Tris is a Divergent, able to apply herself to multiple factions, and she and her kind are the only ones who can open a secret box left behind by the founders of this post-apocalyptic civilization. The film does enough to hold your attention and we get to visit the other two factions we missed the first time, providing further shape to what is still a confusing world. I think the Divergent series will always fall short of the YA pacesetter, The Hunger Games, but they offer their escapist moments of entertainment. The second film is a bigger, louder, and more heavily coated CGI affair, especially the magic box’s mental trials that amount to a repeat of the first movie’s psychological trials of fear. Woodley is the strong center of the film and she processes her own PTSD over being forced to kill friends in order to survive; you do start to sense that Woodley is growing restless with the franchise. The third book is, as required by the mandate of milking YA franchises, being split into two movies, and while it served little to the Hunger Games, I hope better for the Divergent series, a group of movies inferior and somewhat mystifying but still interesting enough. For now.
Nate’s Grade: C+
With a premise involving two teenagers with terminal cancer, you’d be correct to assume that The Fault in Our Stars is a sad experience. It wants to be an unsentimental version of the Big Cancer Weepie, like a more hip version of Love Story. It wants to obliterate your tear ducts but in a way that won’t make you roll your eyes from an overdose of maudlin material. Based upon John Green’s international best-selling young adult novel, the doomed romance of the year has already devastated millions of moviegoers. Is it the feel-bad movie of the summer with a soundtrack Zach Braff would approve?
Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is a 16-year-old girl dealing with lung cancer. She lugs around an oxygen canister to her group therapy sessions, really to everywhere she goes. Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) try and give her enough space, try to make her feel like a normal teenager, but they all know what is coming. Then one day at group therapy she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a tall, handsome, effortlessly confident young man in remission himself (he had a leg amputated from cancer). Gus hones his sights on wooing Hazel, winning her over. She resist at first but then finds herself falling for the charming fella (“I fell for him like falling asleep; at first slowly, then all at once.”).
With constant life and death stakes and the certainty of a young life, it would be easy for the film to go overboard with its emotional histrionics, and yet the real grace of the film is its more realistic approach to portraying this life. It just doesn’t seem fair for someone so young to be stricken with a deadly disease that will pluck him or her from the Earth before settling into adulthood, but these things happen. Hazel and Gus are characters that aren’t begging for sympathy or even special treatment; they’re tired of being treated like lab specimens too fragile to be left on their own. It’s easy to lose the person when the outside world completely identifies them as afflicted. The skill of this movie is that it’s heavy with drama and sadness but it doesn’t quite overwhelm, at least until the last act. Until then, much like the characters, the movie finds the moments of happiness, connection, and tenderness with human contact. You feel the bursts of nerves and excitement over the flirty connection between Gus and Hazel. You’ll enjoy the couple-y moments they share, finding their own identity as a pair, like claiming “okay” as their own secret coded language. You’ll feel warm and fuzzy over that first kiss. It’s a winning pairing that produces a steady stream of sweet exchanges and discoveries. This is something of a silver lining movie that can make you ruefully smile through your tears.
But as a Big Cancer Weepie, and with two suffering lovers, there is a definite cloud that hangs over the entire movie. You’re nervously waiting for some sort of turn for the worse. From a storytelling standpoint, I think every ticket-buyer knows with two cancer-stricken leads that at least one of them will be dead before the end credits. And so we wait for the bad news, wait for that other shoe to drop, and this unsettling dread permeates the first half of the movie, tainting all those happy couple moments. Gus and Hazel have several cute moments, but I found myself holding back, waiting for the proverbial hammer to drop on their small shared happiness, and sure enough it will come. The entire third act is dominated by one character’s descent into terminal. For the sake of spoilers I won’t say which, though readers with keen analytical skills can likely guess which of the pair is more expendable from a plot standpoint. It’s at this point when the movie transitions from sad to full-blown weepie, looking to draw out every last tear. With the diagnosis set, our couple heads toward that date with oblivion, and we get all sorts of weight heart-to-hearts, teens grappling with their own legacy, and even a practice funeral for friends to say exactly how much the soon-to-be-departed loved one mattered. Every step is wrung out, even to the point of one last letter/message before death that serves as the closing, considerate voice over. It’s hard to resist the cumulative effect of all these big dramatic plays at your emotions (I got teary at several points but held my ground).
The question arises at what point is this blatant emotional manipulation? The first half of The Fault in Our Stars finds a balance between the heaviness and the levity of first love, grounding its characters and their emotional highs. However, with that aforementioned turn of sullen events, the plot then becomes one long series of Sad Ruminations. What will the friends do without their pal? What will the family do? What does this harsh realization do to other terminal characters and their own family relationships? What about coming to grips with certain death? And then there’s the practice funeral. For a movie and a set of characters that refused to dwell in a pit of sadness, that’s all that the second half of the movie feels like. It also feels like the two-hour-plus plot is overextended to squeeze in one sad ruminating scene after another. In a way, it reminded me of the onslaught of emotional punishment that was the last act of Marley & Me, an otherwise enjoyable movie that devastated every dog owner by its conclusion. It feels a bit much.
And this leads me to another issue with the adaptation process, namely that Gus is actually a character with little depth to him. He’s a smiling, immensely likeable figure who doggedly pursues Hazel and falls for her hard. But what is he as a person? He’s overly confident, compassionate to others, witty, charming, but these are more superficial descriptions than deeper analysis. I suppose one could argue he’s just decided to embrace life smiling, but for the most part Gus comes across as a prime figure of squishy wish fulfillment. He’s too good to be true, and with a lack of stronger characterization, that’s the way he plays. Now, I certainly liked the character and found Elgort (Divergent) to be a charming lad, but when the film transitioned to sadder territory, my feelings felt blunted. I would have felt more for this couple had Gus felt more like a real person.
It’s a good thing then that Hazel is the protagonist and main point of view, especially when Shailene Woodley as lead actress. I’ve raved about Woodley before, particularly last year’s underrated Spectacular Now, but every new leading performance is further proof that she is one of her generation’s best young actresses. There is no artificiality in this woman’s body. Her performances are master classes in exuding naturalism, blending into the character, finding subtle ways to express a wide range of emotions; seriously, this woman can express so much just with a tilt of her head and the right kind of smile. Woodley is terrific once again, instantly locking in your sympathy. Her trial of love and suffering run the danger of being heavy-handed but Woodley seamlessly anchors the movie, guiding the audience back to her sphere whenever things get too overwrought. When she tears up, I teared up. When she unleashes a howl of grief, I had to fight every impulse in my body to join her. Her chemistry with Elgort is suitable if unspectacular, but Woodley sells every emotion and without a hint of artifice. If she were in a Big Cancer Weepie, you’d never know it given the skill of her performance.
I can’t imagine there will be much surprise for anyone who watches The Fault in Our Stars. Two young lovers with terminal cancer have a way of writing itself. What separates this story from other sappy tearjerkers is its presentation and perspective. This is a movie that flirts between jaded and maudlin, scoffing at the overt sentimentality of grief culture yet finding a middle ground that feels humane and honest and earned. Woodley’s strong, emotive performance helps ground the film even when the long string of manipulation begins. I wish Gus was a stronger character rather than a charming romantic compliment, a dream boyfriend who indeed comes across as too good to be true. I wish the movie also would not get swallowed up by the heavier elements it found balance with before. With all that being said, this is an engaging drama first and an amiable romance second. You may see the end coming from the start, but the same can be said about all of us. We all know how our own story is going to end. The only difference is the people we touch in between the start and the stop. That is our lasting legacy. The Fault in Our Stars is more a journey than a destination, and it does enough right with enough sincerity and intelligence to endure the pain.
Nate’s Grade: B
High school for many was a personal version of hell, with its class system and pressure to conform. Divergent built a whole future dystopia around this relatable concept. The problem with the movie is that the source material doesn’t think that much further.
In the future, 100 years after a great war that scarred the world, the survivors have holed up in the remains of Chicago with a large fence as their protection. The government decided to split off into five different factions, each with their important purpose. The five factions (Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless) work in harmony. Tris (Shailene Woodley) comes from a family of Abnegation, the selfless ones who run the government, though Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the head of Erudite, would like her faction to be on top. At the choosing ceremony, a candidate can select which faction they wish to live within. However, if rejected, that person will be factionless and on the outskirts of society. Rather than choose the comfort of her boring life, Tris decides to join Dauntless, the faction in charge of the security of the city. Before she can say goodbye to her family, she’s off joining a new one, but Dauntless has many tests to weed out the weak. Paramount in her mind is the fact that Tris is told she’s a divergent, one who doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the factions. Divergents are being singled out and executed because they are feared; they can’t be so easily controlled. Tris has to prove herself against tough competition in Dauntless while hiding her true divergent nature.
Having not read the best-selling Young Adult books, I went into Divergent and walked away entertained enough though questioning the larger appeal. My movie partner told me that the adaptation hews closely to the book, fitting in all the major plot beats; she even said it was a better adaptation than the first Hunger Games, so fans should be relieved. What the movie came down to was one long plot about Tris getting through the Dauntless tests. It’s like a post-apocalyptic Full Metal Jacket, just minus the war half. With this tight focus, the film actually plays better and is easier to digest. The stakes are made clear and the hurdles are easy to understand. In a way it reminded me of the Ender’s Game film where we watch a recruit move up the ranks of their sci-fi training, though Ender’s was better at establishing dimension to its world. I did like the small touch that the Abnegation people won’t allow themselves to see their reflection because they see it as vain. I could have used more touches like that.
There are simple pleasures watching Tris, the plucky underdog, rising to the challenge and besting her snobby peers. The games get more intense and Tris learns from trial to trial, eventually learning how to hide her divergent nature by blending in against her nature. There’s also an intensity to this world that’s appreciated; people will die if they can’t keep up (there is one shocking sequence where a batch of jealous recruits literally try and kill Tris). The physical trials are fun but the mental ones are even more entertaining because they function around the candidate’s fears. It’s a tad lazy to simply broadcast a character’s fear for them to confront in a dream, but it provides some creepy imagery and new wrinkle for Tris to master. Even the requisite romance that every YA property has to have is handled respectfully without overdoing it. The mentor/teacher relationship with Tris and Four is a natural conduit for their budding romantic feelings, though James (Underworld: Awakening) looks way older than Woodley (The Descendants). In reality, he’s 30 and she’s 22, though she’s supposed to be… 17? 18 years old? I don’t know but it just didn’t sit right.
Where the movie gets into problems is the larger world outside those Dauntless camps. It feels too ill defined and purposely vague. What’s on the other side of the giant electrified fence (hopefully dinosaurs)? I suppose that’s what sequels are for (they’re already filming the second Divergent for March 2015). The world just feels too small even for one city, and the history doesn’t feel integrated into the cultivations of this society. In a sense, the movie doesn’t give you enough to go on with its world building and spends far too much time dragging out its story. At a hefty 142 minutes, a time frame becoming de rigueur with YA adaptations, the film feels laboriously padded. I kept thinking the movie was going to check out at any moment, robbing me of some semblance of a complete ending. Fear not, there is an ending, though one that feels far too definite to continue a franchise. The bad guys are so obviously guilty, that even while still being at large, it’s hard to fathom a scenario that doesn’t unite everyone against the common threat. Does every YA post-apocalyptic mold eventually lead to unlikely heroes becoming the focal points of revolutions? I’m being facetious, but also highlighting just how derivative this movie is. Divergent borrows from its larger influences liberally, having enough story sense to know how to construct a satisfying tale of heroes and villains. It’s a well-polished film thanks to director Neil Burger (Limitless) but it’s also lacking necessary elements to distinguish it from the glut of dystopian imitators and predecessors.
I just can’t wrap my head around the world of Divergent. It lacks the clean clarity of, say, The Hunger Games, where the game is kill-or-be-killed and it’s very much a class warfare allegory. In Veronica Roth’s novel, the post-apocalyptic Chicago is divided into five factions but this isn’t a caste system. The different factions are looked at as equals, meant to cooperate harmoniously. So there goes any sort of class conflict when the factions are presented more as lifelong clubs. The design is that branching people off into five groups will somehow prevent the strife that lead to the unnamed war of the past. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Why would limiting people’s options for careers and lifestyles eliminate conflict? I understand the not so subtle message about conformity and the strength in controlling others, but it still doesn’t hold. Then there’s the notion that a divergent is a dangerous rogue, but it’s not like the divergent are mutants or genetically different. These are just people who don’t fit neatly into one of the five faction options. If you eliminate the conformity obsession, who cares? It’s only an aptitude test in the end, like what you take in middle school that say, “Hey, you like drawing, maybe you’d like to be a police sketch artist” (true personal anecdote of mine). It’s not something that looks deep into the souls of boys and girls and presages their future. It’s an aptitude test for crying out loud. The world of Divergent also feels strangely unfulfilled, with too many lingering questions about the logistics of how this future Chicago is able to function. There’s a confusing aura around this world and it doesn’t get explained because we spend so much time in Dauntless boot camp.
There was a weird motif I kept noticing throughout the film and that’s the future’s unsafe disregard for medical safety. The Dauntless kids are all about the running, jumping, punching each other in the face, but it all begins at their choosing ceremony. The candidates walk to the front of an auditorium, slice their palm with a ceremonial knife, and then squeeze blood into a bowl representing the faction they select. Of course they reiterate “faction before blood” so it’s a little strange that the ritual involves their blood. Anyway, what I picked up was that every candidate was using the same knife, only with he most perfunctory of wiping the blade. That is just unclean and a way for blood-based disease to spread. Then later during the mental round of testing, Four injects Tris and himself with the same needle. Clearly these post-apocalyptic people have forgotten all about AIDS and other deadly diseases. Why else would Jeanine be so calm as her hand is covered in someone else’s blood? I’m surprised she just didn’t lick it for effect.
The actors are all well cast for their parts, with Woodley again proving herself as one of the best young actresses today in Hollywood. Her part isn’t anywhere as complex or demanding as her terrific turn in The Spectacular Now, but she’s able to slide in emotion where possible, expressing much through the power of her eyes. She’s a heroine you want to root for, and when she goes into badass mode it feels earned. James is suitably hunky while still being mysterious and broody. Interestingly enough, Miles Teller, Woodley’s onscreen beau in Spectacular Now, is here as a bully and Ansel Elgort, who plays Tris’ older brother, will soon play Woodley’s onscreen beau in The Fault in Our Stars. It’s like this weird cross-section of Woodley’s film history of boyfriends. The adults do fine jobs with their limited time, with Winslet (Labor Day) being a better realized version of what Jodie Foster was possibly going for in Elysium. My favorite adult actor was Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard, Jack Reacher) who hasn’t found the right fit for his talents, until now (he was great on Starz’s Spartacus TV show). As a no-nonsense Dauntless captain, he’s imposing in many respects and also intriguingly devious. He’s a grade-A heavy and adds a jolt to the scenes he’s in.
Poised to be the next YA breakout franchise, Divergent will likely be a hit with its target audience and reap the rewards at the box-office, though I think its flaws will hold it back from being embraced by a wider audience with no affiliation with the books. It’s an entertaining story with good actors and enough well constructed payoffs, but it’s also confusing, vague, and lacking enough urgency, class conflict, and developments to parlay into a more interesting story once Tris graduates from the Dauntless ranks. As a standalone film, Divergent works enough and duly entertains, thanks again to Burger’s visual sensibilities and the strength of Woodley. I’m just not invested at all in this world or its larger characters to compel myself to find out what happens next. I ravenously tore through the Hunger Games books, but to each their own. As a big screen sci-fi film, it’s strange that Divergent would work best in its smaller moments and settings. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t diverge enough from the pack of YA-modeled adventures. Well there is one thing to look forward to: I’ll see if I get my wish for dinosaurs in March 2015.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I say this as a fan but John Hughes was probably the best and worst thing that happened to the modern teen movie. He certainly brought an extra level of pathos and relatability to the genre, but then again he also dealt in stereotypes, often languishing his characters to stock archetype ghettos (the Jock, the Prep, the Nerd, etc.). In the ensuing decades, it’s been hard to break as many teen films, of those aimed at teenagers, have casually dealt in these easy labels. That’s why something like The Spectacular Now is such a welcomed respite. Here is a teen movie that aims to tell a story about people and their problems, not simply a regurgitation of high school cliques and clichés. This isn’t a film where all the pieces magically come together; this is a high school movie that more closely approximates real life. This is more Cameron Crowe than John Hughes material.
Sutter (Miles Teller) is the most popular guy in school, or so he’d tell you. He’s the life of every party, the kind of guy who everyone enjoyed, and the guy who could charm the pants off any girl. He’s recently broken up with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), though still harboring serious feelings for her. Of course the best way to get over the old girl is with a new one, and Sutter sets his sights on Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She’s a smart, somewhat quiet gal that immediately takes a shine to the spotlight that is Sutter’s affections and attention. He’s not entirely over his old girlfriend, still angling to get back together, but also Sutter’s whole perspective could be summed up as an extreme case of carpe diem. The kid is partying like there’s no tomorrow because he’s convinced he has no real future, so he’s going to live it up while he can.
You’ve easily seen this movie before but it’s rare to see it given so much depth, maturity, and care. At heart, this is the story of Sutter learning he’s a screw-up and getting his life back in order, learning some self-control and responsibility, and winning over the good girl. But The Spectacular Now is so much more than that, and it’s especially sadder than you may have expected with its wise-talking, charming protagonist. This is the story of a teen coming to grips with parental abandonment, gaining insight into his own delusional detours to avoid pain, and the horrible realization that he is, in his present reckless condition, a bad influence dragging down the future of the girl he genuinely cares for. That’s a lot of heavy emotional drama and none of it revolves around the clichéd staples of teen movies, like those checkpoints such as prom and the Big Test. This is the story about one damaged man coming to terms with the state of his damage and gaining the courage to change his direction. He’s an alcoholic but the movie doesn’t ever put the narrative on hold for soapbox preaching. If anything, Sutter’s alcoholism is handled so subtlety, with most character silently acknowledging but unsure or indifferent to act, that it may strike a few chords with audience members. Then there’s the fact that none of this is heavy-handed; the filmmakers have done a fabulous job of giving each character credibility. They behave like real human beings. Even the easily slotted antagonists, namely Cassidy and Sutter’s deadbeat dad, are given shades of recognizable humanity and depth. Even though Cassidy waffles in her feelings for her ex, I cannot dislike her because her character portrayal is so honest. She’s struggling with her feelings for a screw-up with redeeming qualities. That’s fairly relatable, even if she’s not our winsome romantic lead. The filmmakers drag a typical teen movie story into our real world setting, adding depth and telling observance. You will recognize many of these characters.
There are few superlatives to describe the cuteness of the blossoming relationship between Sutter and Aimee. It’s so smooth and relaxed yet completely believable, and the two actors have such a warm and natural chemistry with one another, enough that I seriously contemplated if they dated outside the film (rumored but nothing conclusive). You feel their budding affections, the sweet swoon of young love, and the hiccups along the way. Woodley (The Descendants) does an outstanding job with her mannerisms and affectations; her awkwardness around her feelings is adorable, but not in that prefabricated cutesy way often ascribed to the oft-mentioned Manic Pixie Dream Girl roles. She’s a fairly normal teenager on the fringes of high school, keeping her nose down and looking ahead. In movie terms, you couldn’t readily classify a gal like Aimee, and that’s because she’s a real character fully fleshed out by the screenwriters and the actress. Woodley’s performance is near invisible of acting tropes and constraints. She just dissolves into the character as all exceptional actors do.
But this is Sutter’s movie and, in accordance, Teller’s (Rabbit Hole) film. The young man puts on an acting camp in this film, shedding the various layers of armor from his sad clown of a character. As I said, we’ve seen this character before, but Teller and the screenplay are able to give Sutter such extraordinary depth. The carefree life-of-the-party character is turned into an introspective character study, essentially examining the darker side of Ferris Bueller. He’s using alcohol and his blithe attitude to blunt the pain that he fears he’ll end up like his old man, that his life has already peaked and he’s not even out of high school. Teller is such a successful charmer that he already wins you over to his side despite some boorish behavior because we see that the guy has a good heart. In the film’s opening, he’s propping up his friend to finally get the guy a girl, and the ensuing mess ends Sutter’s own relationship. The last act involves Sutter coming to grips with the negative impact of his actions, notably on Aimee. Teller is so effective at giving you glimpses of the sadness eating him whole. His concluding scenes when he finally breaks down feel like a hard-fought victory for the character as he confronts his doomed fate. At every turn, Teller impresses, and compounded with Woodley, they form an unbeatable team of sterling young acting talent.
Special mention to Kyle Chandler (Super 8) for his pivotal walk-on roll as Sutter’s bad dad. He’s so pathetic and so desperate and so wonderfully realized by Chandler. He doesn’t get a Big Scene, he doesn’t get a Big Speech, he doesn’t even do anything out of the ordinary for a shifty, unreliable, selfish drunk, but those few minutes he’s onscreen, it all becomes so deeply sad and clear where Sutter’s life is headed without intervention.
The only depiction that I had trouble believing was Sutter’s almost consistent drinking and driving. Throughout the film, he has his trusty Styrofoam Big Gulp cup with him, spiked with booze. The man hasn’t graduated high school yet and is already a high-functioning alcoholic. Because of this I can believe that people would not be alarmed seeing him drive after imbibing a few drinks. However, the man is constantly drinking while behind the wheel of an auto and several times he appears completely trashed. I find it alarming as well as a bit far-fetched that not one character, not even Aimee, would raise objection to Sutter’s continued dangerous behavior. We also witness several scenes of Sutter drinking in bars. It’s conceivable he has a fake ID at his disposal, and it’s even more conceivable that he could talk his way into any establishment, but it’s more food for thought. Then again maybe this is just one of those towns where nobody cares about innocent lives being snuffed out by drunk drivers.
The Spectacular Now is an earnest film that doesn’t overdo it, providing challenging life lessons to fully formed, complex, believable characters. It doesn’t sugarcoat the heartache and harsh reality out there for vulnerable teens. It’s a charming romance tied up with an insightful character study of one young man hiding his sadness and anxiety of life’s disappointments with humor and booze. Thanks to the tremendous acting of its onscreen pair, you root for Sutter to turn his life around because you see value in him as a person, even if he doubts it himself. You’re on his side from the start, and you know how nicely he matches up with Aimee. You want this movie to pull off the spectacular, and for long stretches it feels just as if that will happen. The ending aims for ambiguity but is far more hopeful than its source material. I was charmed thoroughly by this film and its lead characters but even more I was thoroughly engaged in their dilemmas, moved by their struggles, and encouraged by their perseverance and growth. The Spectacular Now (extra points for never even having a character spout the title) is a funny, warmhearted, measurable restrained, knowing film that could open eyes. It may not be spectacular to some, but it’s surely a great film.
Nate’s Grade: A-
We’re so used to seeing George Clooney as a smooth operator, a guy who coasts on his suave charm and chiseled-from-granite good looks. But in The Descendants, Clooney is more vulnerable than he’s ever been, trying to keep his family together, and as the film plays out we realize just how mighty a task this goal is. His character is ill equipped to take the lead of his family, especially a family of growing girls he is consistently confused with. His journey is much more than just becoming a better father. That lesson would be far too pat for director/co-writer Alexander Payne. It’s been a good while since Payne’s last film, 2004’s Sideways, but in that time away he has shaped another outstanding human comedy that manages to squeeze in more emotion than most Hollywood movies could ever hope for.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a self-described “backup parent” who has been thrust into the lead role. His wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma after suffering a traumatic head injury from a Jet Ski accident. The doctors say that she has no hope of waking up and she will die in a matter of days. Matt must break the news to his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). The headstrong Alexandra clashes with her faltering father, finally revealing the reason why she blew up at mom months ago. She found out that Elizabeth was having an affair. Matt is reeling and searching for answers from friends, family, and his two daughters.
Payne’s specializes in pitch-perfect bittersweet character-based comedies, ones that seem to unfurl over a journey of self-awakening. His fictional worlds feel exquisitely rendered, where every character beat and every line of dialogue feels genuine. That’s quite an achievement for a filmmaker of any scope. Even when dealing with caricatures (like in 2002’s About Schmidt), somehow Payne gets away with it. With The Descendants, the sunny setting of Hawaii is just an exotic backdrop for some wonderful, and wonderfully relatable, family drama. It’s hardly the worry-free paradise. Uncovering his wife’s secrets has lead Matt to reassess the woman he loved. The movie completely upends the standard deathbed goodbye trope. Instead of characters openly bawling about the loss of a saintly soul taken far too soon, we have characters dealing with real conflicted emotions, particularly anger, directed at the indisposed and unfaithful mother. Every character is approaching grief differently, and every character is trying to make sense of their feelings before Elizabeth’s inevitable passing. Matt’s father-in-law (Robert Forster) is harsh with accusations at the ready, blaming Elizabeth’s tragedy on Matt’s shortcomings as a husband. His pain is raw but al too recognizable. Matt and Alexandra are plotting how much info to reveal to young Scottie, trying not to ruin her image of her mother, a tremendous challenge with no easy answer.
This is the stuff of grand drama, and Payne doesn’t skimp on the heart-tugging moments. The Descendants is also a great comedy, naturally finding humor drawn from the situation and characters. The advertising has made The Descendants appear like a broad family comedy, with Clooney flapping around in his noisy flip-flops. This is not the case. The comedy doesn’t feel insensitive or too macabre, instead it adds another enlightening level to these people and their pain. We try and make sense of our world, to cope with our struggles and failures, with comedy, and so too does Matt and his family. You’ll probably be surprised how often you laugh and then in the next moment feel a lump in your throat. The character of Sid (Nick Krause) starts off as a questionable plot tagalong, a doofus for some easy laughs. His reaction to an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s is the movie’s one point of questionable validity. As the film progresses, this laid-back guy is revealed to have more layers, just like the rest of the clan. The second half of the film becomes something of a minor key detective story as Matt and Alexandra search for the elusive “other man.” As Alexandra eggs him on, the two bond over this manhunt and Matt becomes bolder, more confident, and clear-headed about the hard decisions that are necessary for his new life. The emotional rewards of the film are nourishing. Watching Matt and his daughters sit on the couch watching a movie together (March of the Penguins no less. Draw your own connections about parental turmoil), you’ll feel satisfied that this broken family has begin to heal itself.
The Descendants takes an interesting turn when we learn more about the other man’s background. Matthew Lillard (Without a Paddle) is actually respectable as Brain Speer, the real estate titan having the aforementioned affair with Elizabeth. Matt’s confrontation is subdued, sidestepping righteous grandstanding for a better attempt to seek understanding. Instead of lecturing Brian, he wants to know more about what his wife was after that Matt could not offer. Sure he’s still angry and doesn’t let the guy off easy. Complicating matters is the fact that Brian has a wife, Julie (Judy Greer), and two children. Matt is trying to find answers without willfully harming Brain’s family. Greer (Love Happens) has an outstanding sequence where she feels beholden to forgive rather than hate, a note of grace that feels rather profound.
Clooney at one point says he’s just trying to keep his head above water, and you can see why. The man shows a great deal of range as his character confronts his grief. There is no “right” way when it comes to grieving, something deeply personal. Matt’s dilemma is given an unlikely situational twist, but the feelings of betrayal and confusion are all too believable. Matt is looking for answers when the person who holds them all lies sleeping. As he develops a lager picture of his wife and her unhappiness, Clooney expertly flashes through a multitude of thoughts. While arguably not as textured as his performance in Up in the Air, Clooney is in fine form, showcasing a deeper sense of loss and anxiety. Matt is trying to find his footing while his world radically adjusts, and nothing has adjusted more than his feelings toward his wife. Clooney doesn’t have any Big Moments of Great Emotion, though lashing out at his comatose wife comes close, but the man’s nuanced portrayal of a life in flux is the stuff that award ceremonies were made for.
Woodley is a remarkable discovery, more than holding her own with Clooney. She is excellent in her portrayal of an aggressive, mouthy, rebellious teenager. It’s all the more astonishing because Woodley’s long-running TV show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, is one of the worst shows still running on television. The show is so inartful, the dialogue is so tin-eared, and the acting is wooden like the actors have been imprisoned. Where has this actress been the whole time? Woodley’s performance is so alive with genuine feeling, stripping away any reservations of the too typical bratty teen role. She’s much more than a troubled teen sent off to boarding school. Her every inflection, hesitation, motion feels completely natural for her character, and when Woodley gets her big dramatic scenes she is a force to witness. Upon the sudden news that her mother will die soon, she plunges underwater in the family pool and screams as loud as she can, tears squeezing out of those sorrowful eyes. For goodness’ sake, this girl cries underwater. An Oscar nomination is assured for the 20-year-old young actress. Maybe she can quit her crummy TV show after the wave of good press and fawning praise that await her.
The Descendants is an incredibly observed human drama, a humane and touching comedy, a movie so engaged and plugged in to the messiness of human emotions, eschewing the bitterness of some of Payne’s earlier works. This is a thoughtful and nuanced flick that is elevated to even grander heights due to the excellent performances of father/daughter team Clooney and Woodley. The film hits all those traditional emotional notes but on its own terms. The movie approaches a graceful resolution by accepting the incomprehensible disarray of life. The Descendants is just about everything you’d want in a movie: supreme acting, strong characters, an affecting story, and emotions that are completely earned. Payne’s mature and tender movie is, by the end, rather hopeful, a celebration of family overcoming adversity. It’s not schmaltzy in the slightest but a powerful antidote to simple cynicism. This holiday season, be a good movie citizen and spread the word of The Descendants.
Nate’s Grade: A