The Spectacular Now (2013) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality - all involving teens
Running time:
95 min.

Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Masam Holden, Dayo Okeniyi, Nicci Faires, Ava London
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenplay: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber (based on the novel by Tim Tharp)
Review published August 25, 2013

The Spectacular Now 2013 Shailene WoodleyThe Spectacular Now is based on the acclaimed book by Tim Tharp, a coming-of-age tale revolving around one of the most popular dudes in high school, Sutter Keely (Teller, Project X), who is widely known at school as the life of the party.  He's also the guy least likely to succeed, as he's an alcoholic who is failing his classes, and doesn't seem to be even thinking about college, as he doesn't even care if he flunks out of high school.  His behavior sees him bounced reluctantly out of a relationship with his girlfriend Cassidy (Larson, Scott Pilgrim), but life gives him a detour when he wakes up from a bender on the front lawn of a strange house to the sight of Aimee Finecky (Woodley, The Descendants), a girl in his class so unpopular and seemingly average, he doesn't even recognize her.  But in Sutter's life of self-inflicted hard knocks, Aimee becomes a breath of fresh air, as the two form a friendship that develops into deeper feelings, which makes the lad nervous, as he feels he's probably not worthy of her affection.

The screenplay is adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also scripted the equally excellent (500) Days of Summer (hard to believe these guys also wrote the screenplay for Pink Panther 2) While (500) Days is filmed as stylish and quirky, director James Ponsoldt (Smashed, Off the Black) keeps The Spectacular Now grounded and earthy, with characters you'd expect to see in real Georgia towns, and developments that play out in understated ways. 

Themes abound, especially the conflict between living in the 'now' vs. living for the 'future'.  Certainly a guy like Sutter, with self-absorption and self-destruction is a 'live for now' kind of guy, which is why he feels that any relationship he has with someone like Aimee is doomed, as she seems to have the potential to go far.  He could have it all, as Aimee states that she is likely to not go to college because her mother desires her to stay in town.  But in his first selfless moment, he tells her to stand up to the resistance, wanting her to achieve the success he can only dream about.

Meanwhile, while Sutter influences Aimee to break out of her shell for some of the most fun moments of her life, she also has an effect on him to look within himself, to break out of the rut of his own.  Sutter hasn't seen his father (Chandler, Zero Dark Thirty) in years, and his mother (Leigh, The Jacket) refuses to tell him his whereabouts.  Sutter eventually finds out, and in his quest for his father, he finds himself, or at least the likely future for him on the current, steady road he's travelling.  It's a road he can't see Aimee going down, and anguish overwhelms him when he realizes that his best act of love is not to hold her, but to push her away.

In addition to the quality of the direction and writing, what really brings The Spectacular Now to life is the casting and chemistry of the two leads.  Some have made comments that this film echoes somewhat the feel of Say Anything, which featured another pairing of a lifelong slacker who is the unlikely would-be romantic partner of a girl who is on the way to bigger and better things, and certainly Miles Teller has a similar look and instantly likeable charisma of John Cusack in his younger years.  Some might carp that an actor with boy-next-door looks should not be considered the big man on campus, but, to the movie's credit, he's not considered the 'hot' one, but rather the 'fun' one -- the kind of guy you invite over to liven up the festivities.

Though Teller is the star, and delivers a solid performance, it's the work with Shailene Woodley that kicks this teen romance from good to great.  Both actors give the impression that there's more going on to them than they show outwardly, and certainly we get the feeling, as Sutter does within the film, that there's so much more to Aimee than meets the eye, and Woodley nails the budding wallflower character as outwardly shy but inwardly captivating, once you see beyond just her awkward outer shell. 

Though the film experiences a few turbulent moments as it goes though its final third, we're so invested in the characters and their situations by this point, that there is substantial emotional potency to keep the tone elevated enough to maintain a strong vested interest in what develops.  It's not high art or groundbreaking in any way; it's just a well-told story full of truly wonderful, sensitive moments delivered by two very talented young performers.  Though it has a more natural delivery and higher emphasis on its dramatic arc, design comparisons to Say Anything are merited. I'd add it compares more than its design; it also merits it in its sublimely bittersweet execution.  It's as worthy a companion as any.

 Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo