The Spectacular Now (2013)
95 min., rated R.
In the prevalent coming-of-age subgenre, especially this year with "Mud," "The Kings of Summer," and "The Way Way Back," "The Spectacular Now" is another one, but it has the most vivid resonance of them all. 2013's answer to 1989's "Say Anything…" and even last year's soulful "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," the film will speak to teenagers and adults alike and never panders to either group. This might look like a traipse through heavily familiar territory—polar opposites falling in love, broken homes, and reluctance in one's impending adulthood—but few films about teenagers that come through the pipeline actually understand them and are as inordinately honest, tender, and acutely observed as this one. Now, that's spectacular.
In small-town America, 18-year-old high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is popular and gregarious, the class clown and the life of the party, complete with a girlfriend named Cassidy (Brie Larson), who soon dumps him for being such a "lost cause." Working part-time at a men's clothing store, he pours whiskey into a fountain soda cup on every shift and drinks from a flask every chance he gets. It may be true that he'd rather live in the "now" than commit and grow up, but he still has a giant heart. Then one morning upon waking up from a boozy night on her front lawn, he meets Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a bookish, level-headed 17-year-old who enjoys reading manga comics and sci-fi novels and helps her mom do a morning paper route. She's pretty, but not in a fake, made-up sort of way, and smart, but not nerdy, and everything Sutter is not. Aimee agrees to meet him for lunch and then starts tutoring him in geometry. While he initially uses Aimee to make Cassidy jealous, it evolves into a real romance. There might be some heartbreak along the way.
Alcoholism must run personal with director James Ponsoldt because his last film, 2012's "Smashed," followed Mary Elizabeth Winstead's perpetually intoxicated character through her highs and lows of addiction. Here, his protagonist is a functioning alcoholic (though the term is never uttered), but it's not the main focus, just a part of Sutter's personal conflict. Based on Tim Tharp's novel, the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who both penned 2009's wonderfully wistful "(500) Days of Summer") is wise and compassionate, sidestepping teen-movie clichés and actually taking time to listen to its characters. Also, not unlike 2011's unsung "The Myth of the American Sleepover," the film may showcase two intuitive young talents, who are having a moment and will hopefully take more roles equally as mature and nuanced as Sutter and Aimee, but they always look and feel like real teenagers and not movie stereotypes, with facial blemishes and all. There's no "She's All That" transformation here.
Much like how John Cusack and Ione Skye were Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court, the already-appealing Teller and Woodley are lovely together and alone as Sutter and Aimee. The former has a depth and charisma that's never smarmy or obnoxious, and the latter, a humble, unassuming, and approachable presence, proves again after her revelatory performance in "The Descendants" that she should have first dibs on every project from here on out. Because of these two central performances, we like Sutter and Aimee and are pulling for them to succeed. As Sutter's estranged father and single, night-shift-working mother, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh make their dramatic moments count. Also, pulling supporting duties are Larson, never vilified as Sutter's on-again, off-again girlfriend Cassidy who knows she can do better, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who very well could've been a grossly wealthy type as Sutter's pearl-wearing, stay-at-home older sister Holly but sheds some pathos.
Favoring intimacy and organically earned emotional beats, "The Spectacular Now" has weight and melancholy without feeling heavy and a delicate sweetness without becoming saccharine. Every emotion is relatable and cut to the bone that we, too, can feel the sweaty hands and intense butterflies of every interaction and "first" moment. Who needs forced plotting and all the Classic Hollywood trappings when a film is slathered in down-to-earth accuracy and authenticity? It's refreshing to see two young people given room to breathe by both the camera and the script, allowing us to see what makes them tick and why they actually enjoy each other's company.
Close to the third act when things deepen and darken after Sutter and Aimee visit his father, there's a gasp-worthy near-tragedy that might feel cheap and melodramatic to some. This particular moment may not alter how Aimee feels about Sutter, but it is a solidifying moment for Sutter that breaks him down without punishing him. One thing is for sure that it's far from safe to always live in the moment, and, as Sutter comes to realize, he might not be good for Aimee. The untidy, hopeful final shot could go either way; because it's so abrupt, it's not a pat ending but a perfect one. Some kind of special rarity at the end of August, "The Spectacular Now" is a satisfyingly poignant treasure without any "Afterschool Special" affectation that will safely make your heart flutter and break it a little.
Grade: A -