*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Directors come in all shapes and sizes. They range from megalomaniacal tyrants to milquetoast mice. The best ones are virtually invisible, suggestive, telepathic, allowing their talent and techies to excel, while quietly, expertly weaving together their grand vision. James Ponsoldt is either halfway there, or on his way to nowhere. It's obvious he frees up plenty of slack to let his actors run loose, but they don't always know which direction they're heading, and seem to be improvising without a script, which is interesting in a way, for a while, since it gives the movie a semi-reckless, naturalistic feel. The plan is there is no plan. And if the stars magically align in his favour, everyone wins.
The problem is some actors really do need direction. Miles Teller, jester of the present, boy without a future, looks awkward and lost much of the time, which may coincide with his character. Without proper guidance, sometimes he gets it right, sometimes trying too hard to be carefree, otherwise not knowing how to shine in the spotlight. He's probably just trying to keep his gears aligned with Shailene Woodley, who once again radiates, this time as a brainy Cinderella on a collision course with a broken heart. Seems she will redeem a second-rate picture every time. Yet again managing to rescue a movie that appears to have little purpose or scheme other than pairing up various young actors and assembling a series of romantic skits. Many scenes end abruptly, probably because the actors ran out of steam. Exhausting the moment. Making the now spectacular isn't easy when the director is absent.
Then there's the accident-from-nowhere scene. When Miles cries out and orders Shailene out of the car in the middle of nowhere and, once stepping out on the freeway, is suddenly struck out of frame by a speeding bus. My heart jumped. Okay I'm awake now. I was ready to forgive the director's sheepishness up to that point, which was, I hoped, only a decoy to set up a fatal or near-fatal accident scene, one that was going to turn the narrative completely on its head. I was next expecting to find Woodley in a coma, a wheel-chair, or completely disfigured. And Miles being tested by an act of fate. How will he answer to this? But the story plods along as if nothing happened. Which I'm sure nothing did, not in the script or on location. It had to be a sensationalized CGI stunt contrived in the editing room to inject the tedious narrative with a much-needed shot of adrenaline. Cheap trick. This is clearly the sign of poor story-telling and a director that isn't in command of his position.