Movie history is full of great long takes. In “Goodfellas,” Martin Scorsese shows off Henry Hill’s hot shot status by tracking him as he makes his way through a nightclub. Alfonso Cuarón sticks his camera inside of a moving car as it’s being ambushed and never cuts in order to maximize tension in “Children of Men.” Most Steve McQueen films capture characters’ pain by holding a static shot for minutes on end so the experience feels just as punishing for the viewer. Usually, this kind of balletic filmmaking comes from directors known for bold, ambitious gambles. James Ponsoldt, the filmmaker behind “Smashed” and “The End of the Tour,” is not a name one often sees associated with such virtuoso filmmaking. And yet, 24 minutes into Ponsoldt’s third feature, “The Spectacular Now,” comes one of the most delicate and soulful long takes of the century.
“The Spectacular Now” debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where actors Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley were awarded a Special Jury Prize for their performances. Woodley was coming off Oscar buzz for “The Descendants,” while Teller was still one year out from the “Whiplash” explosion. “The Spectacular Now” immediately established both of them as breakthrough talents.
Teller stars as Sutter Keely, a popular high school party kid with a serious drinking problem. Woodley is Aimee Finecky, a high school nobody with no real impulse to break out of her shell. The two meet cute one morning after Aimee discovers Sutter passed out drunk on a lawn that falls on her paper route. So begins a classic teen romance that starts over friendly tutoring sessions, deepens through shared frustrations with overbearing mothers and addict fathers, and gets cemented by a once-in-a-lifetime kiss.
Ponsoldt utilizes a long take to capture this first kiss, a definitive moment in any teen romance. The camera tracks Sutter and Aimee from the front as they walk away from a party on a beach and stroll down a woodsy path. Ponsoldt juxtaposes the naturalism of Woodley and Sutter’s performances with a dreamlike technique so delicate it’s almost unnoticeable. The camera rocks gently off its axis as it follows the characters and becomes weightless, anticipating the more audacious camerawork in “Gravity” later that year. The sounds of the party fade into the distance as birds chirping and trees rustling take centerstage. The color palette erupts into a warm mix of leafy greens, soaring butterflies, and hazy yellow sunlight. When Sutter makes his move and kisses Aimee, Ponsoldt breaks his camera’s rhythm by tiling the shot off-center. It’s a brisk maneuver that nevertheless feels momentous in its disruption of the moment.
The power of Ponsoldt’s long take comes from the way it subverts such a milestone moment in teen romance. The director doesn’t rely on over-the-top theatrics or needle drops to mark such a momentous event in his characters’ lives, but he doesn’t sacrifice the emotional enormity of the kiss either. There’s no standing in front of a window with a boombox, or dramatic declaration at the prom. Regardless, “The Spectacular Now” is still made up moments that feel just as consequential. When Sutter and Aimee have sex for the first time, Ponsoldt holds the camera in a close-up on his characters’ faces. The filmmaker deprives the moment of any music, editing, or camera flourishes. The focus stays with the actors and the authentic connection they share. Once again, Ponsoldt strips a scene down, while keeping every semblance of the emotions intact.
So much of “The Spectacular Now” sidesteps teen film conventions. Take Aimee and Sutter’s meet cute moment — which, in retrospect, isn’t so cute at all because of Sutter’s self-destructive drinking problem. The character’s addiction is an escalating thread throughout the film, culminating in a scene where Sutter discovers that the absentee father he long idolized is just an agitated, loveless drunk. Sutter’s demons make him the farthest thing from the archetypal high school “it” guy, despite Teller’s charms creating such an illusion for the character. Woodley’s Aimee is naive but not helpless. Even Sutter’s ex-girlfriend Cassidy is not a villain. As played by Brie Larson, Cassidy is frustrated and saddened by Sutter’s lack of responsibility. Her presence in the film isn’t to antagonize but to provide prospective on how Sutter’s behavior can only be tolerated by those who love him for so long. “The Spectacular Now” is a movie about teenagers that never feels like a teen movie, and for that reason alone it’s a modern-day classic.
“The Spectacular Now” is now streaming on Netflix.