Bringing Realism to Romance

What it means to be a teenager.
What it means to be a teenager. // James Ponsoldt

When James Ponsoldt ’01 set out to make “The Spectacular Now,” released earlier this month, he sought to recreate the teen movie. Based on Scott Neustadter’s novel of the same name, the film, set in Ponsoldt’s hometown of Athens, Ga., is at once realistic and nostalgic. It bucks the trend of high-budget blockbuster films portraying the “perfect” romance, instead embracing its characters’ imperfections in an effort to create characters resonant with the emotional realities of the film’s viewers. Steeped in the aesthetic of “Anytown, USA,” “The Spectacular Now” portrays a world simultaneously familiar in its failings and uplifting in its story. The film stars Miles Teller as Sutter Keely, a hard-partying high school senior with no future plans, and Shailene Woodley as Aimee Finecky, a studious girl who has never had a boyfriend. After his girlfriend breaks up with him, Sutter finds himself on Aimee’s front lawn after a night of heavy drinking. The chance encounter leads to a romance between the two, with Sutter teaching Aimee how to live in the present and Aimee showing Sutter that life is more than partying. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “The Spectacular Now” won the Special Jury Award for Acting. Director James Ponsoldt, best known for “(500) Days of Summer” and Teller spoke with the News and several other collegiate publications about the film.

UNCC. The theme of teenage love is extremely popular among films today. What do you think it is about this theme that attracts people to these movies?

James Ponsoldt. There is a difference between a sentimental mentality and nostalgia. [Sentimental films] don’t deal with the same pain and anxiety of feeling that you’re going to have your heart broken. A nostalgic film embraces the vast emotional spectrum.

YDN. How did you approach the way the film straddles different generations and the way that teenagers’ lives are different than they were 20 or 30 years ago?

James Ponsoldt. I don’t think that teenagers are all that different than they were 20 years ago or 40 years ago. I think it’s essentially the same. Technology obviously changes some things. But the biggest thing for me in thinking about this film is acknowledging the technology that we have now, acknowledging where we are now with fashion or music, and then trying to remove all the elements that weren’t essential. I wanted this movie to hold up and still be relevant.

University of Rochester: The definition of what romantic is has changed. Are people valuing honesty more?

James Ponsoldt. There’s a delineation between big cartoon movies and stories that are honest. In an age of YouTube, I think we have more of an appetite [for honesty]. We are seeing movies about real people being depicted honestly. I think we identify with characters mostly in their flaws. That’s how we identify their humanity.

YDN. You talked about when kids started drinking in your hometown of Athens, Georgia, which is where you filmed. How did that location change the film and how did your experiences influence the final product?

James Ponsoldt. In neither case was Oklahoma (the setting of the book) the defining character. The story wasn’t about young kids who want to be bull riders, where if you reset it it would completely undermine the story. What was important was that these weren’t kids who were growing up in, say, Manhattan. They weren’t growing up in LA or Chicago. And yet they weren’t growing up in the middle of nowhere. They’re growing up in somewhere that was maybe a suburb, maybe a college town, a place where, as a teenager, you see kids that are maybe only two or three years older than you but they party like adults. I felt that we were faithful to and honored the book by bringing it to Georgia.

University of Missouri, St. Louis. The way you handled teenage drinking was very realistic. Can you speak to that?

James Ponsoldt. The goal is to never judge the characters, because in real life nobody sees themselves as a bad guy or as someone who’s doing bad things. I think a lot of films, bad films, that deal with substance abuse demoralize and judge the characters and deal with slogans and offer easy lessons. But those are movies that don’t deal with real life. And if you’re personally dealing with things or if you have people that are close to you, who you love, who are dealing with substance abuse or alcoholism, it’s not that comforting to see a movie where someone’s completely fixed and everything’s okay. I try to be a really great advocate [for the characters].

YDN. What’s it like to be 26 and play a high school senior? Do you see any of yourself in your character?

Miles Teller. For the record I was 25 when we filmed it. Obviously I wasn’t really looking to play a high-schooler. And so I thought it was a step back, but it was one of the best scripts that I’ve ever read, so I was really excited to do it. And as far as seeing myself in Sutter, yeah I see a lot of myself in Sutter. Watching it now, I don’t see as much of myself in him. But yeah, if Sutter had parents who were together and two older sisters that just showed a lot of love for him and had all the kind of stuff to succeed in life, I think we would have been very similar.

Boston University. The film felt very natural. Can you both discuss your directorial and acting styles in approaching this?

James Ponsoldt. The goal for me is to always create a film where the audience identifies with the characters. [The actors] can try anything they want in front of a camera.

University of South Carolina. Why is it so difficult to make an honest movie today with flawed characters in Hollywood?

James Ponsoldt. It’s hard to take a complicated character and complicated real people regardless of their age, whether they’re teenagers or whether they’re adults. A lot of studios have moved to a place where they’re more interested in movies that have the potential to be blockbusters and franchises. The films that all of the people in those studios love and respect, they’re not really in a place to make. Audiences are incredibly intelligent and they’re ready and waiting to see complicated characters on screen.

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