The Spectacular Now

Love, on the rocks

Thursday, August 22, 2013

One of the most satisfying things about watching The Spectacular Now is thinking, “I’ve seen this movie before,” one that touches on seemingly every aspect of the teen coming-of-age genre.

And then realizing you haven’t.

James Ponsoldt’s film—and its stars, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley—continually takes us in unexpected directions, giving the film an unexpected depth. It feels real, its emotions earned. It shies away from the Big Dramatic Moment for the most part, instead doling out little victories and small defeats, which is similar to the way most of us experienced our teen years.

Sutter (Teller) is the smooth-talking kid who has an answer for everything, makes friends easily, seems to be gliding through life. He’s reminiscent of John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything.

Until he isn’t. Sutter always has a soft-drink cup with him, and that cup always has booze in it. Beers are always around, because his single mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works a lot. He doesn’t get trashed, at least not too often, but seems to operate at a slight buzz most of the time.

And he’s a senior in high school.

Sutter really does tie one on the night his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) breaks up with him. He wakes up in the front yard of a home he doesn’t recognize, with Aimee (Woodley) standing above him. He doesn’t really know her, but she knows who he is. She doesn’t run with the popular crowd. She’s quiet, studious and polite.

She helps Sutter find his car, and he asks if she’d like to do something sometime. You think, oh no. The cool kid is going to string along the socially awkward girl and break her heart, just like in countless other movies.

But things don’t really happen that way. These are two kids who are wounded, in Sutter’s case, damaged. Parent issues abound. Yet there are no mopey scenes or miracles of self-discovery. They help each other muddle through. Problems? You bet. No relationship is perfect, and Ponsoldt doesn’t try to alter that reality.

Aimee has plans: college, a life after that. Sutter lives for the now, the spectacular now. His enjoyment of the moment barely disguises his fear of what the future may hold.

Sutter’s drinking is a problem. There’s a shattering scene involving a conversation with his boss (Bob Odenkirk) at the men’s clothing store where Sutter works. Again, no flash from the heavens, just a talk. But Sutter’s side of the chat makes it clear that he’s both a) incredibly self-aware and b) headed for trouble.

Aimee is smart enough to know this, but she’s also never had a boyfriend. Sutter teaches her to drink, and you want to wring his neck. At times she seems as if she’s along for what she knows will be a bumpy ride. At others, she is more grounded and focused.

It’s important to stress how good Teller and Woodley are here. (Also Kyle Chandler, playing against type in a small but crucial role as Sutter’s long-absent father.) These are relatable characters, with recognizable behaviors and characteristics. They display none of the cartoonish aspects that so often dog characters in movies such as this.

Instead, they behave like real people, people we care about. The Spectacular Now is one of those sneaky movies that you enjoy while you’re watching, but they have depths that reverberate long after you’ve left the theater. Which makes it pretty spectacular, indeed.

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