This summer has seen the collapse of mega-budget blockbuster special effects movies such as “Pacific Rim,” “The Lone Ranger” and “After Earth.” The computer generated mega-destruction has been exposed to be as boring and predictable as last year’s video game spinoffs. Thankfully, into this vacuum comes a group of intrepid directors and screenwriters who have dared to produce original movies with real characters that real people can relate to.
The strength of coming-of age movies, when done well, is that they combine hilarious entertainment with emotionally moving depictions of a time of life when there is a newness to experience which can be quite intense. The reason John Hughes movies such as “Breakfast Club,” “Pretty In Pink,” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and other films such as “Say Anything” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” dominate the nightly TV channel guides, is that they are honest stories with live beating hearts, stories about people who are easy to relate to. Everyone has memorably suffered in high school or is doing so right now. The poignancy of first loves, first drinks, and first jobs transcends generations. Coming-of-age movies provide an inspirational life line and have impact, the way a generation of women can recite Molly Ringwald’s famous words from “Pretty in Pink:” “I just want them to know they didn’t break me.”
The freshly released “The Spectacular Now” is a coming-of-age movie based on a Tim Tharp novel. The adaptation by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber sets a firm narrative foundation. Directed by talented director James Ponsoldt, it is a deeply moving story with acting performances that are no less than spectacular. Sutter Keely, played by actor Miles Teller, is a charismatic though underachieving young man who is pushed to face his personal fears. Sutter is Lloyd Dobler for the Millennial Generation, but with an enthusiasm for alcohol rather than kick-boxing. Teller proves to be a suave and sympathetic leading man who is convincing both in the “perfection” of his party down life and his troubled depths. Miles Teller deserves entry into the gallery of great coming-of-age performances alongside John Cusak, Andrew McCarthy and Sean Penn.
Shailene Woodley, an actress with a knack for generating interest even when she isn’t speaking, is mesmerizing as Sutter’s girlfriend. Shot entirely in Athens, Georgia on a small budget, “The Spectacular Now” achieves some amazing results. Kyle Chandler (of Friday Night Lights fame) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (“Fast Times”) are memorable as Sutter’s father and mother. The movie slowly sucks you in as things get more adult and serious, then heads into a dramatic conclusion.
“The Way, Way Back,” also released recently, is the creation of screenwriters/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who were last seen winning an Oscar for “The Descendants.” The hero of this film is Duncan, a classic suffering 14-year-old played ably by Liam James. His stooped shoulders and pained facial expression exude teen angst. While on summer vacation he is tormented by his mom’s boyfriend, a cruel anti-father figure played by Steve Carell. He finds relief at Water Wizz, a water park run by slick older guys, including Sam Rockwell, who mix ribbing with attempts to help fatherless Duncan learn some skills. The horrors of self-obsessed adults whose parenting skills go no further than their egos are on display here. The dialogue is hilarious and sharp, mixing heartfelt emotion with belly laughs. It will remind you of Bill Murray’s best work with Ivan Reitman, such as “Stripes” and “Meatballs.”
The screenwriting team of Neustadter and Weber also wrote “The Kings of Summer,” which was released in May. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the movie follows three teenage boys who are bored with video games and frustrated by their overbearing parents. To escape they construct a ramshackle house in the woods and resolve to “be their own men.” Vogt-Powell adds strong and surprising visuals from Ohio suburbs and woodlands. The recent phenomenon of kids who won’t leave home is given a twist. These boys get the courage to leave, and though determined, they find independence more elusive than they imagined. Using lots of light-hearted charm and humor, the movie still raises valuable questions about modern masculinity. Is it possible to be a King anymore?
I can personally vouch for “The Spectacular Now,” “The Kings of Summer” and “The Way, Way Back” as great movies and I want to endorse them to my readers and to fans of The Pursuit of Cool. You’ll love them, so go see them in theatres now!