The Spectacular Now is a remarkably sensitive teen movie, not exactly an oxymoron in American film but rare enough to take notice. Like last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, here is a movie about teenagers that honestly acknowledges and deals with the complexities of falling into first love and sorting out your identity while facing some very real problems.
That it is delivered with such nuance and feeling, courtesy of young actors Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller (we really, really like them), is cause célèbre in a summer movie season of cardboard blockbusters. Like the equally lovely summer by the sea picture The Way Way Back, currently in release, The Spectacular Now deals with the teenagers navigating broken families and insecure self-perceptions. That The Spectacular Now features the very daring notion of two teens that heal each other through much-needed respect and caring, seems novel.
Fun loving senior Sutter Kane is the big man on high school campus, a popular everyman who works part-time in a men’s clothing shop when not drinking his way through weekends. We first meet Sutter contemplating a college entrance essay where he appropriately draws a blank – he doesn’t know who he is or where he is headed, but he will know what matters by the time The Spectacular Now unspools.
Enter Aimee Finnicky, a delightfully awkward fellow senior who mans the local paper route when not pouring over sci-fi graphic novels. She discovers the passed out Sutter early one morning on a neighborhood lawn, and the unlikely pair strikes up a tentative friendship. Her lack of filter disarms overconfident Sutter, and he finds himself newly focused.
Raised by his hardworking mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, typically excellent) after his father’s early departure, Sutter has an older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has married well, but like Sutter, harbors unresolved family baggage. A terrific dinner party scene of truth telling highlights the divide between youthful ideals and selling out.
And then there’s the elephant in each scene. Is Sutter an alcoholic? Most likely. It’s clear early that he drinks—a lot—to medicate something, and he soon turns Aimee on to booze, even gifting her with a special flask as a prom accessory. Sutter, alienated from his mother due to his perception that she drove dad away, and Aimee, under her mother’s thumb and afraid to strike out to college, quickly recognize familial symmetry and the film’s nicest message – that the pair heal each other and embolden the other to step forward, is richly charted.
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also penned the 2009’s equally poignant (500) Days of Summer, director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) delivers their courtship, including a sensitive love scene (a rarity in movies today) and real chemistry between the two young stars, clearly enjoying each other and really selling the love story.
Like Cameron Crowe’s now-classic 1989 picture Say Anything, Sutter Kane calls to mind a latter-day Lloyd Dobler, a confident guy who becomes vulnerable in the presence of his dream girl. Teller suggests a young Cusack with rapid wit and goofy sincerity. And while we might think we know Sutter and Aimee since we’ve seen many a hard partying lothario or shy girl in most teen movies, the film deepens over Sutter’s reconnection with his irresponsible father (a terrific Kyle Chandler), who delivers a coup de grace to Sutter’s revisionist memories.
Amy has dreams for college and her future, but Sutter wants to live in the now, and in this push-pull Woodley and Teller are superbly matched. Woodley, the breakout star of The Descendants, in which she played George Clooney’s traumatized daughter, performs with little make-up but lots of intelligence, giving us a winning character that merely wants to help a guy she cares about to get himself unstuck. There’s not an unnatural moment in her work here, and as a young star (she is headlining the upcoming Divergent) she is at least in the league of Jennifer Lawrence, with her mix of unpredictable humor and pathos.
But The Spectacular Now belongs to the probing and mature performance of Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole, Footloose), all bravado masking wounds, afraid of growing up, unimpressed with all adults in his life. In scene after scene he questions teachers, bosses and parents—all coming up short.
There are teenaged realities in The Spectacular Now–including parties, drinking and sex–but they are very much part of the human experience of two deeply likeable characters written, and played, with compassion.
The film’s message—that dealing with your issues together is better than alone, and love’s power to heal, is a good one. There won’t be a better film about young people this year.
3 1/2 stars.