The Spectacular Now unfolds from the perspective of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a charismatic and big-hearted high school senior whose life philosophy is “Live in the Now.” Meaning, when he’s not in class or working at a local men’s clothing store – with his booze-spiked thirst master cup and whisky-filled flask to keep him “fueled” - Sutter devotes his time to forgetting to do his homework, partying on the weekends, and encouraging those around him to take a chill pill every so often.
The result? Sutter is popular among his peers, seems capable of charming his way out of any situation, and has the perfect girlfriend: the beautiful, intelligent and ambitious Cassidy (Brie Larson). Shortly after Cassidy dumps Sutter over a simple misunderstanding (or so it seems…), the latter goes overboard with his happy-go-lucky ways and wakes up on a random lawn. There, he encounters Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a high-achieving yet gawky teenager who is immediately smitten with Sutter. Question is, are Sutter and Aimee really the yin to the other’s yang?
Trailers for The Spectacular Now focus on selling the film as a coming of age/puppy love story – with some parental issues thrown in for added drama. However, the marketing angle is not only a bit misleading, it’s also something of a disservice to the actual movie – which is quietly heart-wrenching and not-so-nostalgic in the way it deals with the shortsightedness of adolescence (on the surface), while also exploring more complex themes (on a deeper level). Teller and Woodley’s scenes together form the glue that keeps everything together, as both young stars deliver strong performances that prevent the story from being ensnared in melodramatic trappings – and keep everything afloat, during the film’s weakest moments.
Spectacular Now is based on the novel by Tim Tharp, which was then adapted by screenwriting team Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer) – yet, the script feels like it could’ve been an original creation of the latter duo. To explain: in Spectacular Now – much like in 500 Days – Neustadter and Weber touch upon certain ugly realities of young people relationships – such as how they can be quietly emotionally-abusive, when the people involved aren’t on equal standing, emotionally. Similarly, their deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is done better in this new film than in 500 Days.
Such lofty ambitions in general are handled thoughtfully and feel like a proper match for the material, given the high-school setting; yet, they do not distract from the other important themes that are inherent to the narrative (example: the symbolic and literal difference between alcohol use/abuse). Director James Ponsoldt – who dealt with alcoholism head-on in last year’s Smashed - brings a low-key sensitivity to most of the proceedings. The unfortunate exception lies with the film’s director and screenwriters’ somewhat glib treatment of the subplot that involves Sutter’s father – brought to life by Kyle Chandler with a still-worthwhile performance – which is too bad, since those developments are the basis for much of what happens in the third act.
Despite the eventual psycho-analysis of Sutter – which is done in a hammy fashion – Ponsoldt avoids making Woodley as Aimee come off as over-precocious. Instead, he and the actress take a warts-and-all approach to characterization (the same as Teller in his portrayal of Sutter); as a result, the protagonists feel like they are real people who have good qualities and non-idealized shortcomings. Ponsoldt and the director of photography Jess Hall (Hot Fuzz) shot Teller and Woodley’s interactions with one other by using extended takes and intimate closeups to avoid obstructing the performances with unnecessary editing. It’s a smart move, since the potent screen chemistry and rich mannerisms of the leads speak for themselves. More so, Woodley and Teller are in their 20s, but have still-developing physical appearances that only help, rather than hinder, the vulnerability of their performances.
Supporting cast members in Spectacular Now get limited screen time, but close to every one of them uses their moment(s) in the spotlight to shine. As was indicated before, that is the case for Chandler as Sutter’s dad Tommy, as well as Larson as his ex, Cassidy. In addition, there are emotionally-moving scenes that feature Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ponsoldt’s leading lady from Smashed) as Sutter’s older sister, Holly; Dayo Okeniyi (The Hunger Games) playing Cassidy’s new boyfriend, Marcus; Jennifer Jason Leigh (Weeds) as Sutter’s mom, Sara; Andre Royo (Super) as Sutter’s geometry teacher, Mr. Aster – and last but not least, Bob Odenkirk (a.k.a. Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad) as Sutter’s boss, Dan.
While the film delivers a few storytelling cheap shots which soften the overall impact - especially where it concerns Sutter’s daddy issues – The Spectacular Now is still a strong addition to the adolescent coming of age sub-genre – one that forgoes easy wistfulness in favor of untidy human emotion, as grounded by the compassionate and engaging turns by the film’s leads (who definitely have a bright future ahead of them). Moviegoers who like it when stories of youth deal with the messy facts of life in a meaningful way – this one’s for you.
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for The Spectacular Now:
The Spectacular Now is 95 minutes long and Rated R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality – all involving teens. Now playing in limited release, but the film will continue expanding to more theaters over the forthcoming weeks.