Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) really wouldn't mind being eighteen forever. He's in his senior year of high school, on the verge of graduating, but is more concerned with partying it up than doing his school work. He drinks a lot, sometimes only vaguely remembering the night before, and even has a flask to secretly spike his soda while on the clock at his men's clothing store job. A random blackout in somebody's front yard is how Sutter comes to meet Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a studious classmate who knows him better than he knows her. She's covering for her mom on her morning paper route when she saw him passed out. Aimee agrees to give him a ride, and he, in turn, helps tossing the papers into driveways. Though she's not in the in-crowd at school, Sutter doesn't really care. He invites her to a party, partly to make his ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), jealous, then starts to genuinely like her. Aimee has never had a boyfriend before, and she falls quickly for Sutter. The trouble isand Cassidy can attest to thishe's not exactly a reliable guy when it comes to making commitments.
By the sound of the setup, prospective viewers of "The Spectacular Now" probably think they've seen this all before and could guess the trajectory of the plot and all its conflicts in their sleep. They'd be wrong. Adapting from the novel by Tim Tharp, screenwriting partners Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2009's "(500) Days of Summer
") take the blueprint of pretty much all teen movie romances1989's "Say Anything" might be its closest tonal cousinthen turn all the rusty conventions audiences have been predisposed to expect on their heads. In one respect, there does come a single disappointment: the film lacks the sort of memorable, complimentary soundtrack prevalent in young people's lives that movies of this ilk ought to pretty much demand. In just about every other way, "The Spectacular Now" gets things exceedingly right, director James Ponsoldt (2012's underseen "Smashed") aiming for a rare openness and intimacy that dodges making issues bigger than they are or an excuse to throw in a preachy learning lesson. In all of its economically composed 95 minutes, there is but one scene that smells falser than the others (without giving things away, it involves someone being irrationally told to get out of a car during a three-hour-plus road trip). The rest of the picture is so natural one frequently feels as if he or she is eavesdropping on actual people who don't know they're being filmed.
Miles Teller (2013's "21 and Over
") and Shailene Woodley (2011's "The Descendants
"), who together won the acting award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, are one of the most appealing onscreen couples in recent memory. Their getting-to-know-you interactions are charming in their pure naturalism and the charisma they share, one scene that leads to their first kiss especially affecting. That Aimee doesn't run in the same circle as Sutter is a non-starter of an issue; there is a passing mention from Sutter's gawky friend, Ricky (Masam Holden), about his disbelief that Sutter would go out with her, but it's dropped immediately afterwards and never discussed again. When the two of them have sex for the first time, it abruptly arrives early on and with no huge fanfare; the scene is simple and beautiful, filmed in an unbroken shot, with the more inexperienced Aimee arguably the one that is primarily instigating this big next step. And, when Aimee initially turns down beer at a party Sutter takes her to, it seems that she is going to be portrayed as a common, so-called "goody two-shoes" until, moments later, she has no hesitation in taking a swig from his flask. It's probably her first time drinking, but she's no prude and, like most kids her age, open to new experiences. Though Teller and Woodley, blessedly free of vanity and make-up, are at the center of the film, their relationship is just one piece of a bigger portrait that traverses the official end of childhood, the struggles between parents and their offspring, and the first steps that must be bravely taken for one to leave the safety of home and seek his or her own independence.
Patient and understanding, even when Sutter makes mistakes and treats her unfairly, Aimee is almost too good to be true. Yet, she is truthful, a girl on the verge of womanhood whose irresistible naiveté intermingles with her refreshing maturity. Director James Ponsoldt is clear without overstating that Sutter, in no uncertain terms, has a drinking problem. Aimee never brings it up to him, and may not even be aware of the issue since she happily drinks with him on occasion. A collection of mounting incidents, however, make it very clear to Sutter himself, not the least being a narrowly missed car accident and a visit with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler) that plays like one disappointment after another. By the time his boss (Bob Odenkirk) gives him an ultimatum, making him promise to never arrive for work the least bit buzzed or tipsy, it counts as a positive step that Sutter turns him down. He finally knows enough about himself to be honest, and he can't make that promise to his manager.
"The Spectacular Now" is rough, honest and accurate, its emotional beats hitting at unanticipated moments. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (2012's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
") takes the small part of Sutter's older sister, Holly, and turns it into a subtle dramatic powerhouse, a scene she shares with her brother not needing a word to be spoken on the topic for the viewer to innately understand that her marriage and life are not nearly as happy as she lets on. Also very good, Jennifer Jason Leigh (2010's "Greenberg
") plays Sutter's mom, a woman whose attempts to protect her son from knowing his dad has led him to believe she not only resents him, but doesn't care about him. The culmination of Leigh's and Teller's uneasiness reaches a third-act catharsis both deeply moving and well-earned. "This is the youngest we're ever gonna be," Sutter says at the prom as he looks out at the faces of all his fellow students on the dance floor. The future is a scary thing to Sutter, and so it's no wonder that he starts to internally shut down when Aimee brings up the possibility of him moving with her to Philadelphia after graduation. This conflict, like the rest, does not play out as it tends to in the typical teen film, and the movie's final moments, hopeful but open-ended, find a way to be crowd-pleasing without tying everything up in a neat bow. Sutter and Aimee are still very young, and they both have their own respective growing to do. What's so reassuring, though, is the sneaking suspicion that they'll be a whole lot happier doing it together.