In the opening scene of The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt’s surprisingly dark and tenderly wrought new film, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) sits at his computer, working his way through a college application. When he comes to a question about hardship and how it’s prepared him for the future, he pauses and takes a long swig from a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which betrays the real attitude of this devil-may-care high school senior. He’s not one to plan too far ahead or take things too seriously. Fun-loving Sutter, you see, lives for the moment—the future be damned.
But the sad truth is that, for all his bluster, Sutter is a precocious sot unable to remember many of the moments he claims to cherish. And so, early on, his mind befogged by booze, he drives recklessly into the night—having been rejected once more by his buxom blond ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), who wants someone more serious, and wakes up the next morning on a stranger’s lawn, a schoolmate peering over him to see that he’s all right.
Enter Aimee Finicky, a shy and adorable geek portrayed to perfection by the lovely Shailene Woodley, who commands an entirely different emotional palette than she did two years ago as George Clooney’s sassy and discerning teenage daughter in The Descendants. Sutter notices that Aimee, although reserved, is deep and open-minded. They click, and he resolves to give her the full high school experience, introducing Aimee to the wonders of whiskey, bringing her to parties, and encouraging her to stand up to her manipulative mother and take control of her life.
“I’m just trying to help this girl out,” Sutter tells his best friend, Ricky, who is worried that Aimee—who dreams of living on a horse ranch with an imaginary future husband—will become too attached to her new beau. Soon enough, though, Sutter grows accustomed to her face, as Henry Higgins sings it in My Fair Lady.
But Sutter is not out to remake Aimee. (This is not an updated version of Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical, or its modern incarnation, She’s All That.) The Spectacular Now, loosely adapted from Tim Tharp’s vivid 2008 novel and co-written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the writers of (500) Days of Summer), is a sweet and untidy portrait of young love and all the baggage that comes with it, as Aimee and Sutter attempt to navigate their way through the perils of adolescent life with remarkable maturity.
The two soon become a couple—their conversations feel especially natural, and there’s a very real and emotionally raw sex scene—but their relationship has a tension at its core, and it comes from Sutter, who is not fully invested in the thing. To be sure, he takes his new girlfriend seriously, and it turns out that she can help him as much as he has tried to help her. But Sutter struggles with a number of insecurities, and he’s not often willing to let Aimee in on them, to let her take him seriously.
It turns out that his fondness for partying is (unsurprisingly) a defense mechanism. His father (played convincingly by Kyle Chandler) abandoned him at a young age, and Aimee encourages Sutter to pay him a visit, against the wishes of his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who knows that it will just be a disappointment. It would be giving too much away to reveal exactly what happens when the two drive off to see him—or what ensues in the wake of their visit—but suffice it to say that Sutter’s mother is correct, and all of Sutter’s doubts and fears bubble up in one of the film’s most intense scenes.
In what is surely a risky move given its high-school setting, this coming-of-age story earned an R rating, which gives you an idea of the kind of demographic the director hopes to reach. The Spectacular Now is not a light movie, and it never veers into easy sentimentality. (Though Mr. Teller’s Sutter does feel a tad underdeveloped at points, he is well complemented by Ms. Woodley, who gives the most genuine performance of the film.)
Mr. Ponsoldt is ultimately telling an uplifting story, and yet, to his credit, he flows a steady, subtle undercurrent of melancholy through Mr. Tharp’s narrative. Sutter, it becomes clear, has a drinking problem. It’s not a central component of the plot (as it was in the director’s previous film, 2012’s Smashed), but it adds dramatic heft and more than a few nerve-wracking scenes, with Sutter driving drunkenly about, taking slugs of whiskey from a flask that he carries with him at all times.
Thankfully, refreshingly, The Spectacular Now never once feels like a cautionary tale. It’s not intent on judging its protagonist. Although Sutter’s fidelity to the present moment often seems like superficial evasion, the movie makes it clear that it’s not that simple. Sutter’s presence of mind is, after all, what led him to notice Aimee Finicky in the first place.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW
Written by: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller and Jennifer Jason Leigh
Rating: 3/4 stars