During an early scene in The Spectacular Now, carefree high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) goes to a party with his new friend Aimee Finecky, whom he met after face-planting on her lawn at the end of a hard night of debauchery. The laws of moviemaking tell us that this boy and this girl will overcome their differences, however slight, and fall in love. Sutter and Aimee walk down a trail a few paces away from the party, chatting as the camera follows them from ahead in one unbroken take. We know exactly what’s going to happen. And yet, when it does happen, when they kiss for the first time, I almost leapt out of my seat in delight.
Why? Because The Spectacular Now transcends the trappings of its genres and finds honesty and genuine longing in characters who come across as fully fleshed-out individuals almost instantly. And then, having established those wonderful characters, terrifically performed by breakout stars-in-the-making Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer) take the characters and story in unexpected directions that deepen the movie’s thematic ambitions and visceral impact. By the end, I deeply cared about both halves of the central relationship equally, and their conflicts with each other and with their parents felt equally weighted, as they might in real life.
How does The Spectacular Now succeed where so many other lesser teen films fail? For one, Ponsoldt’s observant directorial style suits the performers and the material perfectly: he trains the camera on his actors and lets them riff, never editing out a nervous laugh or a momentary slip of the tongue. We get the sense of watching real people have real conversations about real problems – there’s no sign of the melodramatic conventions that serve as the backbone of stereotypical films about high school “issues.” Sutter struggles to define his ambitions, if he even has any, while Aimee has the opposite problem: with one foot out the door to university and bigger dreams, she’s rejected the notion that romance and spontaneity fit her personality in any way. Even though the charisma of the performers endears us to the characters immediately, the script rarely lets us forget that these characters, like so many real-life high school couples, might not be right for each other.
The Spectacular Now also folds in a mature exploration of the dynamics between parents and children, leading to some of the movie’s most devastating material in the third act. Aimee’s mother forces her daughter to take over her paper route six days each week with no pay, and her father died years ago. Sutter, meanwhile, has a mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who seems to care about him but refuses to give him any information about his long-absent father’s whereabouts. When Sutter decides to take matters into his hands, he realizes that so much of what’s been missing in his life came about because of his father’s influence. In a lesser movie, these conflicts would resolve neatly by the end, but The Spectacular Now embrace life’s inherent open-endedness: some things are the way they are.
Teller and Woodley both acquit themselves tremendously here. Teller seems like a young leading man in the making, quick-witted and brash but lovable and well-meaning. And I can’t say enough about Woodley, who is currently but not for much longer best known as the lead on ABC Family’s regrettable The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Apparently that series has been providing Woodley with acting lessons on the side: she’s comfortable, hilarious and deeply sympathetic as Aimee, a teenage girl who seems uninterested in the trappings of teenage life: romance, alcohol, freedom. But Woodley shows us both the resilient, mature near-adult on the outside without sacrificing the naivete under the surface.
The Spectacular Now never tells, it shows. We know that Sutter and Aimee are right for each other because it’s self-evident: the performances are so naturalistic, the writing so sharp and relaxed, the camerawork so savvy, that the movie’s gut punch of a second half simultaneously comes out of nowhere and seems utterly genuine. When the screenplay threatens to head in formulaic, melodramatic questions, you can almost hear the screech of James Ponsoldt’s metaphorical steering wheel as he makes a sharp left turn into richer, more challenging thematic territory. If you’re looking for a movie to satisfy your romantic fantasies of teenage life, you might be disappointed by this movie’s departure from formula. But if you’re open to a movie that juxtaposes the vivid pleasures and horrific tragedies of being a child, growing up and learning more about yourself than you might like, The Spectacular Now will knock you off your feet. Spectacular indeed.