Review: The Spectacular Now


The Spectacular Now

Most movies about teenagers are so unreal, you'd swear the people who make them never were teenagers.

Not so for the charming and bitingly realistic The Spectacular Now, a film that perfectly captures a universal teenage quandary: whether to live in the moment or plan for the future.

As the film opens, the moment -- that is, the now -- is pretty spectacular for the film's protagonist, popular party boy Sutter Keely (Miles Teller). The high-school senior doesn't study much or bother dwelling on life's unpleasantries. He's too busy hanging out at parties, getting it on with his sexy and equally popular girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), working at his easy job in a clothing store and nurturing his budding alcoholism.

All is well until Cassidy has enough of Sutter's noncommittal attitude and dumps him. But a potential rebound comes quickly: After a late-night bender to numb the pain, he awakens on someone's front lawn and meets nerdy nice girl Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), who helps him find his car while he helps her deliver newspapers. This meet-cute moment is The Spectacular Now's least plausible plot point, but all is forgiven as the film heads for places far darker and more believable.

Sutter and Aimee soon have a thing going; it's an unlikely thing, but far more realistic than most teen movie romances. They travel in different cliques, but have much in common. Beneath Sutter's party-boy persona is a troubled soul with a drinking problem and abandonment issues, thanks mostly to his long-gone father. Aimee is much more grounded but has her own problems; among other things, she's been accepted to a college in another town but doesn't want to go, afraid to break away from her controlling mother.

The story of Sutter and Aimee is captivating, albeit a bit predictable. I'm not really spoiling anything by saying that the ever-noncommittal Sutter blows off Aimee for awhile, considers getting back together with Cassidy and has an awkward but revelatory meeting with his dad (like father, like son, and in all the wrong ways). But predictable or not, The Spectacular Now tells its story of adolescent angst with rare emotional authenticity; obviously, director James Ponsoldt and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who also co-wrote 500 Days of Summer) have not forgotten their teenage years. Every scene feels entirely real.

The Spectacular Now feels so real, in fact, that even a potentially sexploitative love scene works perfectly. Sutter and Aimee aren't grown-ups, but the scene certainly is. What could have been a voyeuristic, leering intrusion into a very private matter (you know, like we see in almost every teen film) is instead a gentle, emotionally engaging moment of intimacy. This scene is one of many sympathetic moments in The Spectacular Now that afford the characters great respect, rather than exploiting their sexual exploration (or even worse, their misery) for cheap cinematic thrills.

Neustadter and Weber's script is nearly perfect, but The Spectacular Now owes just as much of its success to Teller and Woodley. The two young actors (they're much older than their characters, but you'd never know it) turn in an astounding pair of performances we'll hopefully hear more about during Oscar season.

Teller isn't the pretty boy we would expect to play a popular teen like Sutter, but he's convincing because the character is much more complex than a mere handsome face; he must rely on his confidence and charm to win friends and influence girls. Teller plays Sutter perfectly, exuding a breezy, fast-talking charisma while never quite hiding his underlying insecurities. The more self confident he is, the more we know it's just an act, and the more believable are his frequent meltdowns and his aversion to broadening his horizons. He lives in the moment because the future terrifies him. He also hides his surprising depth and self awareness; introspection isn't cool when you're partying, after all.

As Aimee, Woodley has exactly the opposite job. More glamorous than her character, she plays Aimee as the invisible girl we all knew (actually, didn't know) in high school, a brainy teen who outwardly scorns popularity but would love to be loved. Unlike Sutter, Aimee also would love to go away to college and have a future beyond the confines of her small town. She has big dreams, but her overbearing mother -- who makes Aimee work long hours to help pay the bills -- keeps her daughter from blossoming in almost every way.

Just as good in smaller roles are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler as Sutter's long estranged parents, Sara and Tommy, who share a world of hurt. Sara is an exhausted single mom with fading beauty and little patience for Sutter's irresponsibility. When we meet Tommy, it's obvious where Sutter's capricious streak comes from, as well as his alcoholism. His reunion with Sutter is a telling episode; it mostly tells us that Tommy is a selfish, reckless, aimless lout. Again: like father, like son, but we hope Sutter can rise above his father's fate.

Tragic but not totally so, The Spectacular Now is a scarce gem of a film about the pains of adolescence. It's not to be missed, whether you're a teen or remember being one.