Shailene Woodley

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller give a breath-taking performance as young adults finding love and growing up in "The Spectacular Now." 

Photo courtesy of A24 Films

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley easily rank among the most promising young actors working today. Woodley earned an Oscar nomination for her work in “The Descendants,” while Teller has used his dozen or so film roles to etch out a charming, surprisingly complex screen persona. Both actors do their best work yet in “The Spectacular Now,” the touching, singular teen romance from director James Ponsoldt.

Sutter Keely (Teller) is a charismatic hurricane, regularly participating in after-school-special-worthy binge drinking in the midst of an intense downward spiral after breaking up with his girlfriend Cassidy, who is played by Brie Larson. After a particularly rambunctious night of shenanigans, he wakes up on an unfamiliar lawn with Aimee Finecky (Woodley) standing over him, and something compels him to take an interest in her.

Keely has this undeniable boozy likability to him. Teller’s performance is fascinating, playing Keely as a self-destructive teen who is unsure of how to react to someone who sees value in him. Woodley portrays Finecky as a timid girl breaking out of her shell for the first time, perfectly embodying the lovestruck high schooler, from the googly eyes and awkward giggles to the unguarded vulnerability and warmth. The fragile, tender intimacy that Woodley and Teller build with their marvelous, stunningly deep performances gives the film its most effective moments.

The film’s supporting cast perfectly complements both performers, and even small roles from Bob Odenkirk and Andre Royo leave impressions. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who starred in Ponsoldt’s “Smashed”) does subtle, affecting work as Keely’s sister, and Larson is appealing and purposeful as his ex-girlfriend.

The script from Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter is a simply told, gorgeously observed exploration of the way people’s personalities imprint on and bleed into each other, filtered through a legitimately heartfelt teen romance. Ponsoldt uses long, talky tracking shots to build Keely and Finecky’s relationship, and perfectly captures the spontaneity, beauty and heart-wrenching stakes of being young and falling in love.

What really makes “The Spectacular Now” stand out is the profound emotions it’s able to evoke. Teller and Woodley’s chemistry and Ponsoldt’s unwavering tonal control over every moment charm you into investing in their relationship before the film delves into unexpectedly dark territory, making every messy emotion or harrowing development all the more immediate and gripping. While some of the developments in the third act feel a bit contrived or unconvincing, the uniformly excellent performances keep things compelling, and Teller deserves commendation for how tender he makes a scene that could have come across as overly dramatic.

The honesty and naturalism that the film brings to its central romance, coupled with the enormously moving performances, make “The Spectacular Now” an authentic, powerful film, and one of the year’s best. While Ponsoldt’s smart, strong direction makes a great case for watching more of his work, if Teller and Woodley continue to bring such assured depth and charisma to the screen, they’ll quickly become some of the most essential actors of our generation.

The best coming-of-age films have a distinctly personal stamp, and “The Spectacular Now” shines for the authenticity director James Ponsoldt employs. The unlikely love story between charismatic, borderline alcoholic Sutter (Miles Teller) and adorable, insecure Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is wonderfully acted and evocatively directed.

Ponsoldt visited Austin to host a Q-and-A at a screening of “The Spectacular Now,” and The Daily Texan sat down with him to discuss the film. 

 

The Daily Texan: You got the script at Sundance last year, right? 

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, it was right after Sundance. I had [my film] “Smashed” there, and then several weeks later, I heard that these producers had seen the movie and loved it and wanted me to read this screenplay that obviously other people have written. I’ve never really thought that I’d be interested in directing someone else’s script, just because when I make movies, I try to make them as personal as possible. But I was flattered, so I gave it a read and was kind of blown away. It’s one of the most honest depictions of adolescence I’d ever read, and it reminded me of myself at that age.

 

DT: What sort of experiences from your adolescence did you bring to directing this?

Ponsoldt: Tim’s book takes place in Oklahoma, and I transported it and shot in my hometown Athens, GA, and shot it in all the places where I grew up. It was one of those things where I was constantly engaging with places that I had profound emotional connections to.

There’s a quality to it that feels like a lot of America. I think in casting very specific actors and not having them really wear makeup, and having them wear clothes that felt real and like what kids would wear. It’s the end of the school year, they probably bought their clothes from Wal-Mart in August, and it’s June and they’re kind of worn out.

Casting actors who had great imaginations and listening to them and talking to them before we shot, figuring out what they found really great but also things that troubled them. And really letting them put their fingers on it, because ultimately it’s a story about 18-year olds growing up in America right now. Shailene knows a lot more about what it is to be an 18-year-old girl than I do, so I listened to them whenever possible.

 

DT: Who came first, Miles Teller or Shailene Woodley?

Ponsoldt: Shailene did. I’d heard that she’d read it and she really loved it. She blew me away in “The Descendants,” and it suddenly opened my eyes up to what this could be. If I could shoot it in Athens, if I could shoot it on anamorphic 35, if I could do all these things and start to have actors like Shailene and Miles … I thought, ‘This has the potential to be really special if I can keep building outwards from there. They are truth tellers. They’re really honest, and feel like people that … if I saw them, I would think these are real kids.

 

DT: Can you talk a bit about the way you use long takes to build intimacy between the characters?

Ponsoldt: It was part of the design from the get-go. I love films that have long takes. For me, there’s a lot of big, silly, fun movies out there that are very postmodern and require an awareness of pop culture and to sort of connect the dots. That makes for fun, intellectual games that can be very clever, and I like clever stuff, but what I really like is when I come in contact with a book or an album or a movie or a really great TV show that leaves an emotional residue on me afterwards that’s still living on.

I think long takes require really great actors, where you don’t have to do a patchwork quilt of a scene. You can see the evolution of a scene and people really watching each other. To me, really great acting and really great moments are when you find surrogacy and agency in different characters. It’s beautiful to watch people listen to each other and try to understand each other, to see two people just bouncing off each other in real time.

The long walk and talk where they kiss for the first time in the movie, you can see two people kind of buzzed and goofy and adolescent and a little more unguarded and honest and vulnerable and emotional and then ecstatic and nervous and anxious and ‘oh-my-god we’re kissing!’ It’s a really lovely thing if you can pull it off, if you have a crew that can do a five-minute Steadicam shot going backwards on a wet, muddy path through the woods and actors who can handle that.

 

DT: Those scenes felt very off-the-cuff. Was there any improvisation at all?

Ponsoldt: I invite my actors to improvise. I love their imaginations, and I tell them from the get-go, you can do anything you want, you just have to be willing to try anything I ask. I want them to talk to me about scenes and if there’s things that they’re not comfortable with, that they think feel like there’s something dishonest, like the character wouldn’t say this, I’m like, “Alright, partner, what would you say?” When we come up with it, the script changes, so by the time we have a shooting script and we’re going, their fingerprints are already all over it. They helped create it, they know what it is. Whatever that improv would have been, they’ve already made it and it’s already reflected on the page.

Teller plays Sutter Keely, an impulse-driven teen who’s in the first stages of an intense post-dumping downward spiral when he wakes up on an unfamiliar lawn with Aimee (Shailene Woodley) standing over him.

Photo Credit: Wilford Harewood | Photographer A 24 Studios

HOLY GHOST PEOPLE

There’s not a lot in “Holy Ghost People” that you haven’t seen before, and the story of Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) and the profoundly broken war vet (Brendan McCarthy) she hires to escort her into the woods is interesting but ultimately clichéd. Searching for her sister, Charlotte stumbles into the pit of enigmatic preacher Billy (Joe Egender), who is as slithery as the serpents he handles.

“Holy Ghost People” has a nice sense of place, and plenty of interesting imagery, but the film grows increasingly erratic as it progresses, and the final sequence is both breathlessly thrilling and completely disjointed, the momentum almost distracting from the film’s claptrap narrative. The film’s script leans on obvious dialogue and exposition-heavy voiceover to tell its story, and even the most effective moments of the film never fully connect, making “Holy Ghost People” a wholly compelling misfire.

“Holy Ghost People” screens again Thursday 3/14 at 11:00 AM.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW

Miles Teller is one of the most promising young actors working today, and in his dozen or so film roles, he’s etched out a compelling screen persona with an assured depth, but “The Spectacular Now” brings entirely new dimensions to Teller, and is easily the best film of SXSW so far. Teller plays Sutter Keely, an impulse-driven teen who’s in the first stages of an intense post-dumping downward spiral when he wakes up on an unfamiliar lawn with Aimee (Shailene Woodley) standing over him.

What results is one of the most touching, naturalistic teen romances ever to be captured on film.. Sutter has an undeniable boozy charm, an innate skill at making everyone he talks to feel good about themselves, and Miles Teller’s performance is fascinating, casting Sutter as a self-destructive hurricane who isn’t sure how to react to someone who sees value in him. Shailene Woodley gives a gentle, warm performance as Aimee, a timid girl who finds herself breaking out of her shell for the first time, and many of the film’s most effective moments come from the fragile, tender intimacy that Aimee and Sutter build.

The script from “500 Days of Summer” scribes Scott Neustadter and Michaele Weber is gorgeously observed, sketching out the way that the personalities of the people you tie yourself to bleed into yours, and I love the way that Sutter and Aimee’s relationship is almost an accident, their first kiss the result of a perfect combination of booze and impulse. The film never forgets that they both nourish and poision each other, and their relationship is realistic and powerfully defined. Director James Ponsoldt deftly maneuvers the film, building Sutter and Aimee’s intimacy with long, talky tracking shots and demonstrating absolute, unwavering tonal control over each and every moment.

“The Spectacular Now” is deeply, profoundly touching, a beautifully insightful romance fulfilled by stunning lead performances. Ponsoldt does a great job rounding out the cast with wonderful actors, but Teller and Woodley do incredible work here, and it’s the unflinching honesty that they bring to their roles that sticks with you once the credits roll. “The Spectacular Now” is a promising work that connects on an emotional level that few films can even dream of, the strongest teen romance since “Say Anything,” and easily the best film I’ve seen so far in 2013.

“The Spectacular Now” opens in theatres later this year.

THE LORDS OF SALEM

“The Lords of Salem” marks a significant departure for Rob Zombie, who’s spent his career thus far writing slimy white-trash archetypes. Sheri Moon Zombie stars as a DJ on a gimmicky Salem talk show, and when she plays a mysterious record on the air, mysterious events begin to transpire. Zombie deserves commendation for creating a truly unsettling atmosphere here, and the film is most effective when it’s building dread, resulting in a more polished slow-burn than Zombie usually digs into.

However, “The Lords of Salem” is all smoke and no fire, and the film never gets more than creepy, its scares mostly fleeting and uninspired. Some of this can be attributed to the film’s narrative breakdown, and Zombie tells his story with genuine incompetence. There’s an interesting mythology built around the witches of Salem, but the film’s central conflict is never clearly defined, the implications of the villainous witches’ murky plan never explored or explained. Even worse, Mrs. Zombie’s character is a total nonstarter, the rare protagonist who is defined by her utter lack of action in any memorable way. Most of the film’s background is filled in by a historical writer/exposition delivery device played by Bruce Davison, and his story is another meandering plot device that adds up to nothing. “The Lords of Salem” drips with ambiance, but the film never builds any sort of momentum, rendering its bizarrely left turn of a climax totally inert. The final result is a repetitive and uninspired film that never rises above a few ominous moments.

“The Lords of Salem” screens again Wednesday 3/13 at 11:59 PM.

(Photo courtesy of Ad Hominem Production Company)

It’s been seven years since Alexander Payne’s last film (the sublime “Sideways), and although “The Descendants” may not reach the staggering highs of that film, it’s a charming picture of those who stay in Hawaii once vacation season is over.

Matt King (George Clooney) is an extraordinarily busy man long before his wife (Patricia Hastie) is seriously injured in a boating accident. Finding himself responsible for daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), Matt struggles with having to be a parent for the first time while also dealing with a family constantly nipping at his heels to come to a decision regarding a massive tract of land they’ve inherited from Hawaiian royalty.

George Clooney is one of the few true movie stars we have, and he continues to challenge his image with each new role. Matt could have been an unsympathetic character, and his simmering anger at learning his wife has been unfaithful is wonderfully expressed by spiteful, sarcastic voice-over saying all the things he can’t. However, Clooney keeps Matt human throughout, even as his character displays a cruel streak in more than one scene and gives a performance that’s nothing less than fantastic.

Also great is the relationship Matt forms with his daughters, who do a lot to sand down his harder edges as the film goes on. As younger daughter Scottie, Amara Miller is offbeat and often hilarious, but Shailene Woodley steals the show as older daughter Alex. Alex is something of a firecracker, and her complicated relationship with her mother gives Woodley lots of great notes to play as she finds herself torn between furious anger at being shipped off to boarding school and crippling fear at losing her mother forever.

Even if it may not have the disemboweling wit of “Election” or the pervasive sadness of “About Schmidt,” “The Descendants” mixes the two to make for an undeniably affecting experience. Much of the film is uproariously funny, but Payne takes joy in pulling the rug out from under the audience and quickly swapping in laughs for heartache in the blink of an eye.
“The Descendants” is unquestionably a strong work from Payne and promises great things on the horizon. 

Printed on Wednesday, November 23, 2011 as: Clooney shines in father-daughter flick

A year ago, Shailene Woodley was probably best known for her prominent role on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” However, her wonderful performance as George Clooney’s spunky, brutally honest daughter in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” promises to redirect the 20-year-old actress’ career path.

The Daily Texan sat down with Woodley earlier this month.

DT: Tell me about Payne’s directorial style.
Woodley: On a personal level, Alexander is one of my top five favorite human beings. He’s just such a ... I will come to tears talking too much about him because I just think the world of him. As far as a director goes, he’s very low key and he has a very strong point of view when it comes to his films, which is rare for a director to have. His style is very ... He doesn’t want us to act when he casts us, he just goes, “Be you. That’s all I want. Just you, within the rules and restrictions of this character.”

DT: How would you compare working in television and film?
Woodley: There’s a giant difference. Television, we do like eight scenes a day, so it’s boom, boom, boom. You have very little creativity involved, time is of the essence, money is of the essence and you just have to get the job done, Film is very different in that you only have one scene to do a day, if that. Sometimes half a scene. So you get so much time to really go deep and figure out the different layers of character and story and explore. It’s like being on a playground — you can try the slide for a minute and then the swings for a second.

DT: Tell me about working with George Clooney.
Woodley: George is such a humble, down-to-earth professional, a phenomenal man on this planet, that there was no intimidation factor. George, Nick Krause and I went to Hawaii three weeks prior to filming to kind of get to know the vibe of Hawaii and get to know each other and Alexander. It was awesome! We went on mini-field trips around the island to kind of get to know the places that our characters grew up and the vibe of the culture. George, I mean, the second you meet him, you kind of forget that he’s George Clooney, “superstar,” he just becomes George Clooney from Kentucky with a heart of gold. He’s such an amazing, comfortable guy to be around that there’s no intimidation factor, and it was kind of an organic bonding process. It was three people getting to know each other.

Printed on Wednesday, November 23, 2011 as: Woodley shares her silver screen experience