James Ponsoldt tackles difficult subjects with assurance and deep emotion. The 35-year-old filmmaker crafts low-key but meaningful dramas.
His infectiously charming 2006 debut “Off the Black” stars Nick Nolte as a disillusioned, hard-drinking recluse who makes a teenage vandal his reluctant protégé. The kid who needs an old man bonds with the guy who needs a son. Last year’s “Smashed” showcased a stellar performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a grade-school teacher on the rocky path to sobriety.
His follow-up, the heartbreakingly honest coming-of-age film “The Spectacular Now,” features breakout performances by Miles Teller as a high school Mr. Popularity and closet alcoholic, and Shailene Woodley as Miss Nobody, who might set him on the right path. The new film opens in the Twin Cities this Friday.
Ponsoldt, who was in Minneapolis last month to promote his film, is drawn to yarns about charismatic troublemakers, and endings that leave us feeling hopeful without being forced or unearned. It was really chance, he said, that brought him three back-to-back projects about alcoholism.
“The Spectacular Now” was adapted from the novel of the same name by “500 Days of Summer” screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. “When the script came my way, the people involved were asking themselves whether I’d have a knee-jerk aversion to going anywhere in that ballpark. And I did.”
The script’s party-hearty opening scenes added to his reluctance. “For the first 10 pages I thought, ‘I don’t want to make a film that’s going to glorify the alpha male, vaguely chauvinistic thing we’ve seen.’ And then it threw me. The main character falls on his face emotionally.”
The fact that drinking was one of the protagonist’s problems wasn’t as central to the story as Ponsoldt had expected. “For me it wasn’t a story about alcoholism. It was part of his character.”
In addition to its rising stars, there are recognizable actors in the film. Winstead plays Teller’s well-married older sister, Jennifer Jason Leigh his overworked mother and Kyle Chandler of “Friday Night Lights” his uncommitted father. Ponsoldt’s method, “tapping into something innate in that actor,” allows outstanding actors to do what they do best. It begins with casting.
“It’s everything. If you don’t want to work intensely with people, you should go whittle wooden duck decoys or something.”
He first saw Teller in John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole,” where he played a student who kills Nicole Kidman’s 4-year-old with his car, a role he landed with hardly any professional acting experience.
“She’s the one who gets to emote, the one where the performance can teeter on histrionics, but she’s so great she kept it in check. He’s the one who has to act opposite on that park bench. He had a stillness and grief and relatability,” Ponsoldt said. “And then I saw him in ‘Footloose,’ ” where he plays a lovable Southern galoot, “and he was a completely different guy.”
Next: ‘Rodham’ and ‘Pippin’
In “The Spectacular Now,” Teller follows a similar arc, but in reverse. “He had to believably be this life-of-the-party guy. He’s actually in a lot of pain and self-medicating. He’s got these delusional ideas of masculinity from an absent father.” In Teller, Ponsoldt sees “a deep, deep soulfulness that’s like a young Tom Hanks, a young John Cusack.”
Ponsoldt chose his adult actors in part for the audience’s history with them. Leigh (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) brings a rich background in teen fare in addition to her mature work. Chandler “has a presence that feels like Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart, this quality of innate goodness.
“In some teen films that are too clever, the parents almost become like Charlie Brown adults, saying, ‘Mwa mwa mwa mwa.’ It was very important to me that they be believable. A working mother putting in long hours, and her kid thinks she caused the dad to run away.”
Ponsoldt’s next projects will give him a chance to show what he can do with two very different sorts of historical stories. He’s up to direct “Rodham,” a drama about the 27-year-old Hillary Rodham’s experiences as one of only three women among the 44 attorneys on the staff of the Nixon impeachment inquiry committee. And he’s writing the screen adaptation of “Pippin,” the classic Broadway musical about Charlemagne’s son, torn between an extraordinary destiny and an ordinary, happy life. “It’s a really silly, fun play that deals with every young man’s existential crisis: Now what am I gonna do?”
As for now, Ponsoldt said he’s happy to bring audiences a film about young characters “who don’t have superpowers, who can’t turn into vampires or werewolves. I believe that people want films like these that respect them and play to their greatest intelligence, their greatest humanity.
“And if not,” he said with a laugh, “we’re a small movie and it doesn’t take much for our movie to be a success.”