[BS Note: This article was originally written in Fall 2013]
This summer the film The Spectacular Now released to critical acclaim. However after watching the trailer I was not impressed. Everyone seemed like a stereotype or cliché and the emotional depth that critics praised was not apparent to me. I complained to a friend about how everyone looked like dumb characters acting dumb and he had an insightful comment. He said “Real teenagers look like ‘dumb characters acting dumb’. If anything, teenagers in films are too smart.” This made me look back on the teen films I’ve seen and reflect on how I behaved while in high school.
I was pretty dumb in high school. I’ll be the first to admit that and I think that most people would feel the same way (about themselves, although I’m sure others would say that about me as well). After seeing The Spectacular Now, I understand why the reviews are so positive. Yes, the characters do dumb things, but the key is that their mistakes feel sincere and relatable. Their stupidity is really authentic to the experience of being a teenager. They make wrong decisions even though the right decision seems obvious to us, the viewers, but they do it because they are coming from a place of uncertainty, both of themselves and of their futures.
Many movies feature teenagers that are insecure or uncertain. In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s character acts out because of his parents’ marital troubles. In Superbad, the main characters are all awkward social misfits. So what separates the characters in The Spectacular Now from those other films? For me, it was the way the characters’ actions don’t seem driven by a plot. In both Rebel Without a Cause and Superbad, it feels like the characters make their bad decisions to move the narrative to a climactic plot point (the shootout in Rebel and the party in Superbad). In The Spectacular Now, the narrative doesn’t seem to force the characters to do things. It feels more like characters making honest mistakes that cause a particular narrative to occur. This “accidental” plot is what makes the film authentic and memorable. It elevates the characters beyond the archetypes they fill and makes them feel honest and relatable.