Directed by James Ponsoldt
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
The teenage genre is an infinite well Hollywood enjoys returning to, even if such repetition can frequently wind up creating some of the most inherently false-seeming films. We like watching movies about teenagers so we can be nostalgic for our high-school years, pretending that we were more popular than we really were, or simply revisiting all those good times on the big screen. But it’s rare for a teenage-heavy movie to portray the high school years accurately, because to do so is to portray the unending awkwardness and unspoken pain that fuels most of modern adolescence. So it’s somewhat gratifying to watch The Spectacular Now, which captures a troubled teenage life confidently and honestly through its portrayal of a romance on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Miles Teller is Sutter, a high school senior who has truly earned the right to be called fun-loving; he’s the life of the party even after he’s the only person still laughing, joking, dancing, and, most of all, drinking. Sutter is never without alcohol, whether it’s keg beer, or something he poured from his flask into a Big Gulp-style cup. As The Spectacular Now opens, he’s without his girlfriend (Brie Larson), who’s wisely, if painfully, realized that he’s out of control and broken up with him. At the end of a tailspin, Sutter winds up passing out on the lawn of the shy, reserved Aimee (Shailene Woodley), and strikes up an unlikely friendship that—unsurprisingly—turns quickly into something more passionate.
The Spectacular Now is, in essence, about that first love you have when you’re young, the one that will define you for years, the one that will be a story to tell decades from now to your old friends. There is endless charm in watching Sutter and Aimee fall in love with each other; an early, single-take scene where they take a walk near an outdoor kegger is the film in microcosm: two goofy, gawky kids stumbling around and over their words, and giggling at the possibilities springing from every sentence. Anyone who saw The Descendants knows that Shailene Woodley has the capability to be as much of a young star as Jennifer Lawrence, and she doesn’t disappoint as Aimee, but the center of the film, in almost every shot, is Miles Teller. At first, he puts one in mind of a young Vince Vaughn/John Cusack hybrid, a little taller than everyone else, a fast talker, and someone who’s always out for the best possible time. As The Spectacular Now slowly, calmly slips away from boisterous comedy and into the emotional, Teller reveals hidden depths, Sutter taking off the happy-go-lucky mask and letting down his guard. Though the film has a few minor stumbles, Teller is excellent as its center. His chemistry with Woodley is as unforced and charismatic as possible, their slight overlaps of dialogue never getting too difficult to parse.
Director James Ponsoldt, fresh off Smashed, another take on alcoholism, is a confident hand behind the camera, emphasizing the growing intimacy of Sutter and Aimee’s relationship even as Sutter’s unable or simply unwilling to commit to Aimee as much as she is to him. So much of The Spectacular Now is memorable not just for its performances, but for the hazy, wistful atmosphere Ponsoldt evokes, framing the action tightly as if Sutter and Aimee are convinced that there is no world except for what they’re creating together. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, working from the novel by Tim Tharp, create an almost-claustrophobic world surrounding Sutter; every once in a while, though, that feels like a strange tack. One subplot revolves around both Sutter and Aimee standing up to their dominant mothers, but we only ever end up seeing Sutter do so; Aimee’s mother doesn’t get a single line of dialogue, despite her controlling nature seemingly having turned into Aimee such an initially hunched, quiet figure.
These are minor missteps in an otherwise warm, sweet, and enjoyable dramedy, though. Outside of Teller and Woodley, The Spectacular Now is stacked with an immensely talented ensemble, including Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andre Royo, and Kyle Chandler. Chandler, who has a pivotal but short role, makes the most of his time onscreen, partly because he plays as far against type as possible. His character is a far cry from the upright and moral Coach Eric Taylor from the late, great TV show Friday Night Lights, but Chandler’s work here is devastating and recognizable, even if the man he plays isn’t forgivable. Among the others, Larson, so winning in 21 Jump Street, has a solid role as that girlfriend who left Sutter at the film’s outset, knowing more than most how close he is to self-destructing thanks to his penchant for alcohol. In fact, one of the smart choices in the script is how, subtly and slowly, it’s revealed that a number of characters see Sutter as being less lively, and more pathetic, precisely because of his gleeful, boozy attitude. Sutter thinks he’s smarter than the world he inhabits, but eventually is brought back down to Earth.
The Spectacular Now is a heartfelt portrait of a love story soon to turn sour, one in which only the bad boy is self-aware enough to know that he’s the bad boy, of how much pain and suffering can be caused by continuing the affair. More than anything else, what vaults The Spectacular Now over so many other teenage-themed movies is its honesty. Though its characters may lie to others and themselves, the movie is clear-eyed and true. Something that’s almost startling is how Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley look young; neither is wearing makeup, and Teller has a few blemishes on his cheeks throughout, little touches that almost never make the cut in teen movies. The teen genre is littered with many beloved favorites, but few feel as unforced as The Spectacular Now, a tender story bolstered by two young actors who should be able to write their meal ticket for years to come off their sterling work here.
— Josh Spiegel