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Soda cups and alcoholism in James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now

In Objet d'Art, we take a look at the use of inanimate objects in film and music and their changing meanings, aesthetics and emotional purpose in different contexts.

When James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now made waves in 2013, praise for the film was almost unanimous: “it’s not your typical coming-of-age story”. While there was much to be argued about what constitutes a “typical” coming-of-age story, and in which ways The Spectacular Now veers from this set path, there was one distinct element that set the film apart from its contemporaries: its representation of teenage alcoholism. A topic rarely touched on in teen movies, the problems plaguing our protagonist were perfectly embodied in a single object — a simple soda cup.

The Spectacular Now follows Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), high school senior and self-proclaimed life of the party, as he navigates his final months of high school and prepares for the future. Sutter drinks his way through the film, dealing with the fallout of his breakup with high school sweetheart Cassidy (Brie Larson) and his burgeoning romance with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a fellow classmate who he first meets after passing out on her front lawn during a night of heavy drinking. Sutter’s dependence on alcohol is present from beginning to end (the very first shot of the film is of him taking a swig of beer while writing a college application) and it isn’t long before Aimee follows suit.

Ponsoldt handles Sutter’s alcoholism with a deft hand (his previous film, 2012’s Smashed, covered similar subject matter). Sutter drinks compulsively for the duration of the film but, much like alcoholism itself, the problematic nature of his drinking takes some time to rear its head. His alcohol consumption takes many forms: red cups at keggers, beer from the bottle, shots at house parties, swigs from his hip flask, and, most importantly, from a jumbo sized soda cup by his side at all other times.

The soda cup is present during most day-time scenes and, much like Sutter himself, seems completely innocent on first inspection. And why not? The McDonald’s drive-thru is up there with the shopping mall as the go-to haunt for teens with a fresh set of wheels. In the car, at school, or at work, Sutter is sure to have a soda cup by his side any time drinking openly would not be publicly acceptable.

The soda cup is most prominent at the men’s clothing store where Sutter works - it’s here where we first see him loading it up with alcohol from his hip flask. Moving in and out of focus, but always in frame, the soda cup never leaves Sutter’s side while he’s on the job. Late in the film, his boss Dan (Bob Odenkirk) is forced to downsize and must let one of his sales clerks go. He offers to keep Sutter on, under the proviso that he never again comes into work drunk — the closest anyone in the film comes to confronting his alcoholism head on. Sutter declines the offer, honestly stating that it’s a promise he cannot make. As the two shake hands before parting ways, the soda cup stands between them. Sutter picks it up and walks away.

While this inclusion of such sensitive subject matter may be the strongest point of the film, the manner in which it is ultimately dealt with is less than satisfactory. For all the talk of The Spectacular Now subverting coming-of-age tropes, the film goes out of its way to conform to genre standards in its final scenes. While Sutter resolves to be a better person, his alcoholism is never properly addressed and the topic is eventually jettisoned to make way for his relationship with Aimee. While this lack of conclusion is disappointing, it does allow for a much darker reading: the film doesn’t resolve Sutter’s alcoholism because it’s likely the character never will either; just like the soda cup, it will always be there.

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