Plenty of movies about teens are released every summer, but very few successfully capture what it is really like to be on the brink of adulthood. “The Spectacular Now,” opening Friday, is one of the few that does, and it does it, well, spectacularly.
Based on the 2008 novel by Tim Tharp, “The Spectacular Now” takes a gentle, sensitive but unflinching look at today’s teens – deftly conveying their awkward self-consciousness, their cocky bravado and their way of trying to hide the hearts they wear, quite prominently, on their sleeves.
The film tells the story of easygoing charmer Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a reserved dreamer from his senior class. Unlike his classmates, Sutter is not thinking ahead to college. He is content being the life of every high school party and winning over customers in the men’s clothing store where he works. But his happy-go-lucky, live-for-today philosophy is a smokescreen, hiding Sutter’s growing sadness and a rather troubling self-destructive streak.
The movie opens with Sutter writing a smart- alecky college essay about being dumped by his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson). The exercise doesn’t hold his interest long, and soon he is drowning his sorrows in whiskey and embarrassing himself at a party.
He wakes up at dawn on an unfamiliar lawn with the fresh-faced Aimee checking him for signs of life. In hopes of finding his missing car, he tags along with Aimee while she does her mother’s paper route, and as they drive around town, hurling papers toward doorsteps, Sutter finds himself taken with Aimee’s innocent sweetness. Intent on making her less of an outsider, Sutter persuades Aimee to tutor him, and then he takes her to a party where he introduces her to his friends and to the contents of his ever-present hip flask. The next day, through hung-over flashbacks, he realizes that he’s kissed this inexperienced girl and asked her to the prom.
What follows is the very believable evolution of the tentative and unexpected romance between these two seeming opposites. Soon we learn that both have absent fathers and distracted mothers, and have made their respective choices – his to be a hard partier and live in “the spectacular now,” and hers to be quietly responsible in hopes of escaping to college in Philadelphia – to cope with their feelings about themselves and their families.
Aimee seems to have a mellowing effect on Sutter; his effects on her are less clear. When he presents Aimee with her own flask on prom night, and when Cassidy later asks him if he’s “turned her into a lush yet,” it begins to dawn on Sutter that his behavior might not be good for Aimee, or for himself. When, with Aimee’s persuasion, he tracks down his father, Tom (Kyle Chandler), Sutter sees the uncomfortable truth – that he’s on the road to becoming just like this charming, but dissolute, man.
With a smart script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“(500) Days of Summer”), director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) delivers a movie that is heartbreaking in the depth of its humanity. He is helped along by his two young leads, whose natural and utterly believable performances are nothing short of breathtaking. It helps that Teller (“Rabbit Hole”) and Woodley (“The Descendants”) are such intelligent and intuitive actors, and that they have remarkable chemistry, to boot.
In a recent blog, Ponsoldt offered his list of the 25 best coming-of-age movies. The list did not include “Porky’s” or “Superbad” and the “Twilight” series was, not surprisingly, absent. What did appear, rather, were films like “Stand by Me” and “Say Anything,” films that aren’t soft-served silliness, that don’t pass off sexual conquests and geek makeovers as rites of passage. They don’t shy away from tough topics. Instead, they deftly use mature themes and three-dimensional characters to plumb the fears and hopes, the angst and longing that go along with being a teen.
His own movie should be on the list.
the spectacular now
3 and 1/2 stars (Out of four)
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler
Director: James Ponsoldt
Running time: 95 minutes
Rating: R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality – all involving teens.
The Lowdown: A hard-partying high school senior’s philosophy about life changes after he meets a not-so-typical nice girl.