Talking with James Ponsoldt makes you excited about movies. The Athens filmmaker has an extensive knowledge of film history and an infectious enthusiasm for his art. Even when diagnosing some of Hollywood’s problems, he speaks with optimism and excitement.
These days Ponsoldt has plenty to be excited about. The writer/director earned massive critical praise for last year’s “Smashed,” and his latest release, “The Spectacular Now,” shot in his hometown, bears all the marks of a breakthrough film.
The film is receiving almost universally positive reviews, and some are calling it the next great teen movie. This has led to Ponsoldt becoming one of the most talked-about emerging filmmakers in the country.
A romantic drama with pitch-perfect moments of comedy blended in, “The Spectacular Now” is so arrestingly honest and void of stereotypes it’s almost insulting to call it a “teen movie.”
Teen audiences will certainly relate to graduating high school seniors Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), but the characters deal with things many adults struggle with, too.
Ponsoldt and his cast approached the movie as an “adult love story in which the characters just happened to be teenagers.” They embraced the complexity of the characters rather than reducing them to types the way most teen movies do. In a broader sense, Ponsoldt set out to counter what he believes is a trend in American movies, the marginalization of adolescence.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of films about teenagers that depict them as complicated human beings and respect them, or that depict (teenage) lives in a way that might mirror (the audience’s own lives) without having to turn them into vampires or werewolves or something so it works more as allegory,” Ponsoldt said.
The filmmaker reveals a realist’s view of the industry when discussing the root of this problem.
“For the most part, I think it’s all profit-driven,” he said. “Multinational corporations need to make lots of money. And they need to sell product, which usually works out to action figures, things that have a ready-made audience because they’re based on a pre-existing property, or things that can be sequeled. Most of the movies studio executives would be quick to have on their wall, like “Five Easy Pieces,” “Nashville,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” or “Psycho,” they would never in a million years make those movies. They would be fired if they tried to. So they’re sort of in these creative handcuffs.”
The director takes on a completely different tone when asked about filming “The Spectacular Now” entirely in and around Athens.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I was born and raised in Athens, and my dad taught for the law school at UGA for over 30 years. I started writing for an alt-weekly in Athens called Flagpole when I was 15 or 16. I always knew I wanted to make movies and make them there.”
Ponsoldt had hoped to film his first feature, “Off the Black,” in Athens, but it would have been too expensive. However, Georgia’s current tax incentive program made it feasible to shoot “The Spectacular Now” in the area, making it a dream come true for Ponsoldt.
“There really was what you would hope for, which is a totally artistically friendly community of people who were just arms open,” he said. “They were like, ‘Hey, you’re making a movie, cool, that’s great.’ Nobody was blown away by it. People couldn’t care less that that’s, like, Jennifer Jason Leigh. They’re used to having Michael Stipe wandering around. I mean, our production office was REM’s office that they had just vacated several months before. People just bent over backward to help us. It certainly, on screen, lent itself to a lot of specificity and a feeling of relatability.”
Ponsoldt is thus far completely unaffected by the recent surge in attention and critical praise. Nor is he using his newfound fame as an excuse to rest. When not promoting “The Spectacular Now,” he is busy developing his next project.
His unassuming manner, his artistic sensitivity, and his film are injecting life into American cinema at a time when we desperately need it.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.