Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Film reviews: "The Spectacular Now" and "Mud"

I recently had the chance to see two very strong additions to the "Coming of Age" genre, Jeff Nichols' latest southern tale, "Mud", and James Ponsoldt's story of a High School alcoholic, "Spectacular Now". These films could not be more different, yet they have many of the tropes of their genre in common, and both take place in the American South.

"Mud" often feels like a period piece. It reminded me just a touch of something I caught on TV a few months ago, a '50's coming of age movie called "Goodbye, My Lady". I started watching this "boy and his dog" movie because the music was written and performed by Laurindo Almeida, the great master of Brazilian guitar. It's a very sad and wistful film, and surprisingly it drew me in with subtle, straightforward acting and storytelling. "Mud" is the same kind of presentation. Nichols' first two efforts, "Shotgun Stories" and "Take Shelter" have a bit more obscurity to them; at times you struggle to understand if what you are seeing is real or not, or what a character's motivation is in a certain situation. This is not the case in "Mud". The central mystery of why the title character is in hiding is revealed early on.

The film centers more around the relationships between the two young friends, the boys and their families, and the boys and Mud himself. The story of Mud and his erstwhile woman, Juniper, becomes more of a learning parable for young Ellis, as he battles his parent's imminent divorce, and falls for an older girl. This is what works beautifully about the film. What seems a bit forced, however, is the plot itself. Much of the film is standard indie style pastorale, slowly paced and small worded dialogue. When it morphs into an action film, complete with heroic rescue, bad guys and a shootout, the result is a feeling that the director is out of his depth. It's not that the action is clumsily done; on the contrary it is quite professional. The film, however, has not been leading us to these moments, and it is reminiscent of the last part of "Adaptation", wherein Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze satirize the arc of popular film with a potboiler ending. Mud goes from being a kind of deluded, pathetic, lovelorn loser to acting like his CIA trained father figure, who just happens to live across the river from Ellis.

Don't  misunderstand--I enjoyed "Mud" very much, and recommend it without reservation. What really shines in the film is the cast, headed by a strong turn from Matthew McConaughey as Mud. He seems to be resurrecting his career by avoiding RomComs and going indie. I have recently enjoyed his performances in "Killer Joe" and "Bernie" very much. The kids, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are both believable and unforced, and much of the supporting roles are superbly played. Standouts are Ellis' father, played by Ray McKinnon (Vern, from "O Brother Where Art Thou") and Nichols' "house player" Michael Shannon as Galen. The two big names, Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepard are as you would expect; up to the task of support players without dominating the film.

On the subject of dominating a film, Miles Teller, as Sutter Keely in "The Spectacular Now" is on screen every frame, it seems, from start to finish. This is a good thing. He is maybe the best young actor in this generation. I was made aware of him through the painfully poignant "Rabbit Hole". Without prior knowledge of the film or it's performances, I came away thinking that he was the main reason to watch it. This is only somewhat true of "The Spectacular Now", due to a fine script, perfect casting, and some of the best ensemble acting in recent memory.

The film tackles an interesting subject; what happens to the popular guy in school when he graduates and loses his status? When people begin to look towards their futures, and not just on where the next party is going to be, or who is the hottest guy/girl to date? Now add into this mix that our hero's undoing begins with being dumped by his hot, popular girlfriend for the over-achieving football/academic star, and that one of the reasons he is being dumped is his incipient alcoholism, and we've got an original character study.

Sutter rebounds with the geeky Aimee, who is played brilliantly by the lovely Shailene Woodley. Casting Woodley as a geeky girl is more than a stretch, she is gorgeous and luminous. I kept thinking about Emma Stone in "Easy A", and how hard a time I had picturing her as the high school loser. These girls would have been the Mt. Everest of MY High School. I guess we need to get past this in contemporary film. Regardless, Woodley and Teller have such a natural chemistry and flow, that it seems like we are watching Cinema Verite at times. Their scenes together are as good as this stuff gets. When Aimee is at a dinner party, and offhandedly describes her father's death to a pill overdose, it is done with that understatement of someone delivering shocking news that they themselves have become inured to. The camera shows the shocked reactions of the dinner guests, and never shows a close-up of Aimee. It is unnecessary. Her voice tone and delivery carry the impact. This is where both you and Miles recognize the depth and strength of Aimee's character. We collectively fall for her.

Sutter and Aimee make a pact to stand up to their (single) mothers, and when Sutter finally does by going to confront his absentee father, you find out exactly what is the source of his alcoholism. What follows is a scene between Sutter and his mother (played by one of my favorite actresses, Jennifer Jason Leigh) of tremendous power, wherein Sutter's mom explains how he is different from his father. This is the big moment, and Jennifer Jason Leigh does it justice.

The script, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is original and thoughtful. There are few, if any, false notes. This is the team that brought us "500 Days of Summer", a re-working of "Annie Hall" that was very entertaining albeit a bit shallow. "The Spectacular Now" shows some growth, for certain. The film may not be as funny as "500 Days", but it will stay with you a much, much longer time.

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