Director James Ponsoldt's new film The Spectacular Now, opening Friday, beautifully tells the simple story of two teenagers who fall in love as they attempt to figure out where their lives are taking them. While seemingly unrelated, that film's successes can tell us a lot about its director's upcoming project: the highly anticipated Hillary Clinton biopic Rodham.
James Ponsoldt's movies—most recently evidenced in The Spectacular Now—aren't about shock value, even when they deal with shocking topics. Characters in The Spectacular Now drink and have sex and clash with their parents, but the movie isn't saccharine or moralizing, never verging into Lifetime territory. An adaptation of the young adult novel of the same name, The Spectacular Now isn't a stereotypical teen movie, so don't expect Rodham to be a sensationalistic political tell-all.
Spectacular Now focuses on the story of Sutter Keely, played by Miles Teller, a hard-partying kid who reaches something of a crisis of conscience after his girlfriend dumps him. Sutter—angry about his absent dad, unsure about his future—is living his life in a cloud of alcohol. This kid's problem goes far deeper than a few beers at a party; Sutter is almost always drunk, pouring booze into a convenience store soda cup. But Ponsoldt never goes for treacly after-school-special messaging in the film. The film's portrayal of Sutter's budding but deep-rooted alcoholism is quietly unnerving in its heartbreaking humanity and specificity. Ponsoldt has dealt with this subject before; his debut drama, Smashed, was an intimate look at a twentysomething couple dealing with the way alcohol has consumed their lives. Ponsoldt, though, doesn't lecture his characters in either movie, or tell us what to think. Even when tragedy strikes in The Spectacular Now, Ponsoldt doesn't demand that his characters change their ways; he admirably refuses to editorialize on their actions.
When we got a chance to talk to Ponsoldt about The Spectacular Now last week, we remarked that it's a movie about teenagers that doesn't really feel like a movie for teenagers. In rapid-fire talk he rattled off a list of "seminal" films that are about adolescence like Say Anything, The Last Picture Show, and Stand by Me. "There’s a fundamental respect for the characters and they are complicated and they have murky and complicated emotional inner lives, and I guess that’s the approach that I would bring to any film," he said. "I don’t care if they are 6 or 16 or 60." That philosophy shines through in The Spectacular Now, and by all indications it will as well in Rodham.
Ponsoldt's biopic, for lack of a better term, will not be some grand assessment of Hillary, despite all the anticipatory buzz surrounding it. So far, talk about the film has revolved around which actress will take on the undeniably flashy role, the script's apparent sexy bits, and the entire operation's political timeliness, as evidenced by the other Clinton projects coming up. "I think people either think it's going to be a propaganda film to get her elected or a sensationalist like ‘ooh! expose,’" he explained to us. "They are both going to be really let down and bored." The movie, which focuses on Clinton's time working with the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate scandal, is a "story about gender inequality and gender politics" and a "character study of a really brilliant and complicated woman." Its story "predates any of the feelings people have about the Clintons for better or for worse."
Ponsoldt returned to cinematic analogies to explain how he approaches Rodham. He espoused the theory that great genre films—like Blade Runner or Rosemary's Baby—should be able to appeal to your emotions if you remove the sci-fi or horror elements. The same goes for his upcoming film about modern American icons. "In this case it's like, no, the film will be successful if you still care about them regardless of whether they became politicians," he explained. "Will you just care about them if you were someone in Waco, Texas trying to balance your career and your family? Would you still care about the hopes and wants and needs of these characters? That's the goal. Cause I'm not really interested in airing the dirty laundry of famous people. That doesn't interest me. Maybe somebody else would." If we come to care about Hillary the way we care about the finely realized characters in The Spectacular Now, we're likely in for something special.