The Spectacular Now
Director: James Ponsoldt, Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
A high school romance between an alcoholic, party boy and a more reserved, shy, girl. Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler (film synopsis from sxsw.com)
WHO’S IT FOR?: Anyone who thinks normal high school movies need to grow up a little. Those who predicted that Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley would be forces of unstoppable acting nature.
After the surprise success of Smashed, director James Ponsoldt is back with another alcoholism tinged relationship drama, but this time his focus is on a carefree high school student only concerned with living life in the present. The big difference between The Spectacular Now and other similarly themed high school tales is that the relationship elements are treated very seriously while still maintaining the teenage sense of discovery and wonder. When Sutter Keely (Teller) meets Aimee (Woodley), he isn’t just meeting a pretty girl who also happens to be a little bit of a geek, but also a possible change in lifestyle that Sutter isn’t quite ready for. It’s a slow build that feels relatable in ways many films tend to get wrong.
The Spectacular Now features some incredible performances, both lead and supporting, while the lack of attention to a single narrative goal makes the film a series of powerful moments rather than a more meaningful whole. Teller fits nicely into the role of Sutter, who’s charismatic enough to get by in school without anyone disliking him but at the same time saddled with deep seeded demons that come from a father who disappeared. He also has no real motivation to move forward beyond the alcohol-spiked big gulp in front of him at all times. It truly is an incredible performance that toes the line between drama and comedy with a sense of humor that works and subtle inner tension that eventually boils to the surface.
Even more impressive is Shailene Woodley proving her Descendents performance was no fluke with a strong, sweet and beautiful performance that never goes over the top. Aimee loves and believes in Sutter moreso than anyone else has so far in his life even if his self-destructive path threatens Aimee’s current stability. What’s so great about the relationship is that we really believe that they make each other a better person. Sutter helps Aimee face a controlling mother while Aimee encourages Sutter to seek out his father against the wishes of his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It’s at this point where the film hits an interesting peak culminating in a life changing encounter between Sutter and his father (Chandler) that sheds an enormous amount of insight into Sutter’s deeper issues. Chandler, who must be at the top of some sort of movie dads “call sheet,” makes the most out of his limited screen time by completely changing up his mannerisms transforming himself into an estranged and troubled father. Ponsoldt clearly gets the most out of his actors but much like our lead character, the film has trouble confronting obvious issues.
Sutter is clearly an 18-year-old functioning alcoholic, or at the very least on his way to being one, with a boat load of emotional issues brimming underneath the surface deep within. Some of the issues are dealt with through some truly powerful sequences; however the alcoholism is barely touched upon except when his father begins to enter the picture. In fact, it’s strongly hinted that Sutter may even be influencing Aimee into the same destructive behavior that ruined past relationships. His job is even at risk due to his constant drinking, forcing him to choose between booze and employment. That’s about as close to a resolution for that aspect of his life that we get and it simply isn’t enough. The Spectacular Now is an incredible showcase for the young acting talents of both Teller and Woodley. It’s too bad the same enthusiasm couldn’t be directed to the rest of the movie in order to provide a more complete emotional experience.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
Tyler Mager currently reviews movies for CollegeMovieReview.com and comics for Gutters and Panels. He's also an aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker based out of Austin, TX. Follow him on twitter @tylermager.