'Spectacular Now' director wants to save teen movies

"The Spectacular New"
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley as star-crossed teen couple, Sutter and Aimee, in "The Spectacular New," directed by James Ponsoldt
Image Courtesy A24 Films

Movies about teenagers are a staple of mall megaplexes, particularly during the summer.

But director James Ponsoldt argues the vast majority of them rarely depict the realities of teen life. The movie industry falls so short of doing so, he said, that teenagers have a distorted view of their own reality.  

When the writers of his latest film, "The Spectacular Now, "went on a research trip to talk to teenagers about their lives, they asked one high school student to name the movie or book that best captured the teenage experience.

"She thought about it for a while, and then she said 'Harry Potter,'" recalled Ponsoldt. "And, no disrespect to 'Harry Potter' but there was a sort of collective sigh amongst all of us. ... We are trying to be a corrective to all of that."  

Ponsoldt said Hollywood hasn't made a realistic movie about teen life since "Say Anything," in 1989.

James Ponsoldt
James Ponsoldt in the MPR studios. He says he was attracted to the script of "The Spectacular Now" because it portrayed situations similar to his own teen years.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

He hopes to correct that with "The Spectacular Now." It follows the life of a high school senior named Sutter, who tries to drown his sorrows after his girlfriend dumps him. He soon wakes up on a stranger's lawn, where a young woman named Aimee Finnicky is poking him.

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She tells him they go to the same school but he "wouldn't know who I am."

"I know you," he says quickly, but it's clear he doesn't.

Sutter is well-known around school as a party boy, with a much-used hip flask. He is all about living for right now.

Aimee is a bookish introvert. She has dreams, but has convinced herself they will never come true. They become a couple, which has dramatic consequences for them both.

"It felt so personal and it felt so shockingly like it was my story that someone else had just taken out of the ether, I felt I had to engage with it."

"This is a story that deals with first love, first heartbreak, first sex," Ponsoldt said. "There's car accidents: so much happens it's on the verge of being histrionic at times."  

That's entirely appropriate, Ponsoldt said, because "The Spectacular Now" is about teenagers.

"Everything feels larger than life," he said. "Everything feels so big because everything is happening for the first time. You don't have the life experience to contextualize things and also you are on a hormonal rollercoaster so you blow everything out of proposition."

Ponsoldt has made a number of features including last year's comedy drama "Smashed." Although he prefers to write his own scripts, he made an exception after receiving the adaptation of Tim Tharp's novel "The Spectacular Now."

"It felt like someone had actually written the story of my adolescence," he said. "It felt so personal and it felt so shockingly like it was my story that someone else had just taken out of the ether, I felt I had to engage with it."

In the story Sutter and Aimee fall in love, and they also hurt each other.

"It's a much more murky relationship, that's somewhat co-dependant, and not entirely healthy," Ponsollt said. "And yet they do change each other's lives. People can sometimes be upset by that, that it's not neat and tidy."

On set
James Ponsoldt, in green shirt, directs a shot during filming of "The Spectacular Now" in Atlanta.
Image Courtesy A24 Films

The characters bleed when they are cut. Ponsoldt credits his two young stars, Shailene Woodley as Aimee and Miles Teller as Sutter, for their commitment to their performances.

"They wanted to go to places that were uncomfortable, and they brought no vanity whatsoever," he said. "We really didn't put much makeup on them. We wanted them to feel like regular kids, and I think they really mined the pain from their own lives."

Ponsoldt has been touring the world with "The Spectacular Now" going from festival to festival. He recently introduced a screening before a sold out audience at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He said questions he received after the film revealed an engaged and intelligent audience.

As a film maker, he loves that immediate feedback. That makes the end of the promotional tour hard to take.

"It make me sad," he said, with a laugh. "I don't know that it gets any better than this really."

But audiences shouldn't worry about Ponsoldt. He has plenty to do with a film in the works about a young Hillary Rodham before she met Bill Clinton. He also hopes to someday make a movie out of stories by Minnesota writer and friend Ben Percy, who is trying to revitalize the werewolf genre.