When I was in grade school I knew an older girl, C., who was widely considered to be a mathematical genius. She got the highest grades in every math class; she won competitions. She seemed to love it. It didn’t make her super-popular but she was hardly tormented either — just ignored, as a lot of smart kids are, in my experience. And at 15, she met a guy I can only describe as some kind of 1990s incarnation of a greaser. They started going out, she ended up pregnant, they got married, and she dropped out. One day the summer after I’d graduated, I ran into her on a bus somewhere in our mutual suburb, with her kid. She kept talking about how much she meant to get back to school, but there was the kid, and the guy was, at that moment anyway, out of the picture. I don’t know if she ever did manage it.
I kept thinking of C. as I watched The Spectacular Now over the weekend. Based on a YA novel of the same name, it depicts the end-of-high-school romance between one Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley). Sutter, a charming drunk, takes up with Aimee, a shy nerd, after his blonde, buxom girlfriend drops him for being such a bad influence. But Aimee is not so much Sutter’s savior as a soft landing place where he can really start to fall apart over his absent dad. People are calling it the new Say Anything.
To be clear from the outset: The movie, unlike the rather irritating book, deserves a lot of the love it has gotten. The performances are as pitch-perfect as they say; everyone in this film looks, speaks, and acts as real people do. But as I sat and watched it over the weekend I found myself getting more and more annoyed with it. The wrench for me was Aimee, not the way she’s played, but the way she’s written. Aimee is a lot like C., perhaps minus the “genius” part and the kid. Someone — Sutter — has finally looked at her, and damned if she isn’t ready to be seen. And watching her cling to Sutter for all she’s worth, I remembered that not only did I feel a little sorry for C., back in the day; I felt a little jealous, too. I didn’t have a real boyfriend when I was watching all of that. And like a lot of girls I knew, I wanted a relationship, any relationship, no matter what it looked like.
Does that sound like a totally crazy thing for a young teenager to want? I suppose it does. Andrew O’Hehir at Salon diagnosed Aimee as a “doormat,” and he is not totally wrong. In the film, as in the book, Sutter is repeatedly a complete jerk to Aimee. The nature of his interest in her is perpetually unclear — he is not indifferent to her, but more than a few of Sutter’s emotions are obscured from his view, if you get my drift. And all along, as written, Woodley’s Aimee smiles beatific smiles, is nothing but flattered and understanding and forgiving and loving. She lets Sutter dance with an ex-girlfriend at the dance without the slightest of eyelash flutters. It’s not what you’d want any 17-year-old girl of your acquaintance to do in the face of such shitty treatment; you’d want someone, anyone, even Aimee’s annoying friend Krystal, to wake her up.
All of this leaves Aimee open to a Dream Girl critique, minus the Manic and the Pixie. She bears none of the cutesy trappings, but she is only in each scene to act as a fulcrum for Sutter’s transformation. It isn’t that her character is a fantasy object so much as that the movie, much like Sutter, isn’t all that interested in Aimee qua Aimee. And that’s always been the infuriating thing about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl — the funny outfits and “crazy” personality were just window dressing on the fact that whoever wrote her simply didn’t think that women were people worth painting in full color. It was never the case that the loving of bunnies and vintage footwear were objectionable in and of themselves; it just sucked that that was all these men saw when they looked at women. And it sucked even more when women tried to play the part.
The thing that makes someone like me ache for a Nerdy Doormat Dream Girl like Aimee, after all, is not that she is unrecognizable, a fake, a phony. But rather that I know that at her age, presented with a popular boy who was interested in me, I’d have done just about anything to please him. Up to and including, as Aimee does, sacrificing my own physical and emotional health. That is a choice a lot of women make, even well on into adulthood. “I’ll change him,” “I’ll save him,” “I just want to give him another chance.” And to be honest, it is a more interesting and frankly unexplored territory than the usual boy-acts-out-in-absence-of-dad narrative. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad for young men’s sake that this movie is clear as a bell on what a mess Sutter is. I just want some director, any director, to do the same for Aimee.