Film Review: The Spectacular Now

Subtle, involving character study of a brash, troubled high-schooler who enters a tentative romance with an insecure but intriguing classmate.

The coming-of-age movie is one genre that will never fade; after all, there’s always a new audience of young moviegoers for whom its life lessons seem fresh. And every once in a while, there’s an example of the form that actually is fresh. Last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one such case, and now 2013 brings us the decidedly mature and subtle The Spectacular Now.

Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, director James Ponsoldt’s third feature is something of a teen companion piece to his 2012 drama Smashed, which focused on a young female schoolteacher battling alcoholism. Here, the main protagonist is Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a cocky high-school senior who’s never without his handy flask of whiskey. As the film begins, Sutter has just been dumped by his gorgeous girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), who's taken up with class president and football star Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi). Drowning his sorrows in booze, Sutter passes out on the front lawn of Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a shy classmate he’s never really noticed before. Sutter and Aimee have an easy rapport, but the boy remains fixated on the beauty queen who got away. Sexually inexperienced, Aimee puts up with Sutter’s lack of commitment (and drinking) but idealistically pins her hopes on their future, especially once she agrees to sleep with him. Their relationship reaches a decisive turning point when, against his mother’s wishes, Sutter tracks down his long-absent father and sees himself reflected in this irresponsible, indolent barfly.

Unlike so many formulaic movies, The Spectacular Now presents us with complicated characters you can’t sum up in a one-sentence log line. Sutter is arrogant, kind, alternately confident and insecure, irritating and charming. Aimee is tentative, assertive, naïve, sharp, needy, independent, unprepossessing yet pretty. And the two talented actors who play them make it all look effortless. Teller, who resembles the then-gawky teenage Patrick Dempsey (long before he became Dr. McDreamy), projects an above-it-all bravado but also lets us see the anger, fear and frustration that lie just beneath his smooth façade. Woodley, so impressive as George Clooney’s moody daughter in The Descendants, de-glams herself here and is startlingly convincing as a sweet-natured nerd who doesn’t believe she’s attractive. As the story progresses, we watch these two characters try to find their true selves and their bearings in this new, unexpected relationship—a sophisticated arc not often seen in teen films. That said, this still feels like a male-driven movie; a female writer surely would have made Aimee less patient and self-effacing in her relationship with Sutter and given her more grit and backbone.

The Spectacular Now also features a strong supporting cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s bitter, overly protective mother; “Friday Night Lights” heartthrob Kyle Chandler really selling the role of the boy’s wastrel dad; Brie Larson (excellent in the upcoming Short Term 12) as Sutter’s lost love; Smashed star Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter’s grounded older sister; and Andre Royo of “The Wire” as his concerned teacher.

With careful nurturing, Ponsoldt’s high-school film deserves to reach a wide demographic. Its most appreciative audience may very well be an older art-house crowd; the crossover to watch is the teen segment. Will they take to a movie that respects their intelligence and deals in complex, sometimes unsympathetic characters? Only time and the box office will tell.