As we grow older, we miss more and more than feeling of recklessness, invincibility and spontaneity that was being a teenager. Learning to think ahead to the future was a crucial part of becoming an adult, and it’s this lesson that is at the center of James Ponsoldt’s stupendous coming-of-age dramedy The Spectacular Now. On its surface, the film's bad-boy-meets-good-girl plot is something we’ve seen again and again. However, with an intentionally stripped down approach and an intensely talented cast, Ponsoldt creates something fresh and entirely exhilarating.
Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now centers on charismatic class clown Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a party animal whose devil-may-care attitude wears thin with his peers as senior year draws to a close. His classmates—including his ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson)—are looking ahead to college, but Sutter can’t even complete an online college application form. A major part of Sutter’s problem is his drinking, as he is always stealing sips from a flask. Day drunk is a near constant state, and at night he amps it up ending up passed out on some random lawn. This is where he is found one morning after by newspaper-delivering Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) a sweet, smart but plain girl who doesn’t really register on the high school popularity charts. But she interests Sutter, so he follows his “live in the now” dictum and pursues her.
To both’s surprise, they find a deep connection, and love soon blooms. Their support of each other inspires both to bravery. For Aimee, this means standing up to her mom about her choice of college. For Sutter, it means finding what happened to his long-gone dad. And from there, the film takes a dark turn in which Sutter must face who he is and what loving someone really means.
The Spectacular Now is remarkable, full of heart and humor while being threaded with threat of heartbreak. It’s a movie placed almost entirely on the shoulder of two young actors, and both Teller and Woodley are perfect in their portrayals. I described Sutter as charismatic above, but I struggle in beginning to express how deeply charming and engaging Teller is onscreen. Throughout the movie Sutter wins over would-be haters and foes with an easy smile and a friendly patter, and it’s totally believable because Teller oozes affability. He’s Ferris Bueller without the ambition, or Tom Cruise without the typical leading man good looks. But beyond this surface charm, Teller layers Sutter with a guarded emotional core. As the movie progresses, these layers fall away and Teller manages each turn with a delicate touch. So when we’ve reached his low point, where his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) clutches him close in a tight hug, I wanted to join in and hold him and fix him and just make him feel okay again. Teller’s onscreen charm is radiant, and pulls you into the movie. But it’s his vulnerability that keeps us invested when things become dark.
For her part, Woodley is a brilliant foil. She beams with chipperness as Aimee, but what could have been a flat role of supportive girlfriend is given depth within Woodley’s graceful performance. Whether she’s learning how to own an f-bomb, tasting her first shot, or losing her virginity, Woodley’s Aimee feels real, made up of a mix of nervous enthusiasm and hopefulness. Together, Teller and Woodley create a young love that feels vibrant, beautiful and painfully fragile. Strong supporting turns come from Larson as Sutter’s conflicted ex, Leigh as his over-extended single mom, Kyle Chandler as his deadbeat dad, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter’s posh sister, Bob Odenkirk as his kind-hearted boss, and Dayo Okeniyi as his romantic rival.
Beyond its incredible performances—which on their own are worth the price of admission—Ponsoldt makes this teen movie more mature by rejecting the glossy exteriors typically put on the genre. Sutter and Aimee go to prom, but it’s not stocked with red carpet ready teens performing a big group dance number. The dialogue—crafted by (500) Days of Summer scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber—isn’t punched up with unrealistic witticisms or attention-grabbing pop culture references. Ponsoldt aims to take his teens seriously, but without falling into weepy melodrama. And he also makes them real, sidestepped the typical level of movie makeup that makes pretty girls flawless. Sutter has visible scars. Aimee doesn’t appear to wear any makeup, and favors slapdash ponytails. Their clothes don’t fit to a T, nor are they peppered with the kind of interesting details that typically set movie clothes apart from real-life wear. It’s striking what a difference allowing young people to look like real young people makes onscreen. Everything felt more real and therefore more urgent. The emotional stakes are raised by mindfully stripping away artifice and gloss.
While I can’t say enough positive things about the film’s look and performances, Ponsoldt struggles in structure. The movie goes off the rails a bit in the third act, reeling awkwardly from one scene to the next up to its final shot—which should be said is earned and sure to spark debate. More disappointing is the blur of its timeline that made it impossible to know how much time had passed from scene to scene or over the course of the narrative. But frankly, the emotional thread of the film is so strong and its leads so captivating, I’m willing to forgive its gracelessness in pacing and plotting.
The Spectacular Now is a glorious coming-of-age drama and a fantastic first love tale. Teller and Woodley share a great chemistry, but better yet create full-blooded characters whose journey feels important and profound. Ponsoldt—with the help of a great script and story—brings to the screen a teen character who feels familiar yet unique, and should be celebrated on the level of Bueller and Risky Business’s Joel Goodsen for his life-changing charisma. Because it premiered at Sundance, I worried to some degree that this would be a movie too arty to be appreciated by the masses. But while it lacks the flash and sex appeal typically slathered on teen romances, The Spectacular Now is so moving and heartwarming I can’t imagine it not winning over anyone who gives it a shot.