The Spectacular Now is the sweetest, most poignant movie about teenage alcoholism and enabling I've ever seen.
The Spectacular Now was a much different movie that I was expecting. My first clue should have been that this was rated R. You usually don't see a lot of light-hearted teen films with that rating. My second clue should have been that this was directed by James Ponsoldt, whose last film, Smashed, dealt with a similar theme. Apparently Ponsoldt's first film, Off the Black, also deals with it as well, but I haven't seen it. Anyway, the tone of the film caught me a little off guard. It's not like I didn't like The Spectacular Now, but I'm on borderline on putting in that category of a great film that I'm not sure I want to see again.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a popular student approaching graduation. He has a hot girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), and is the life of the party. Sutter lives in the now, and it's spectacular. Get it? Fortunately, nobody actually says that phrase in the film, so you'd hear that collective, "Oooooh, that's what it means", from the audience. Sutter has a few issues though. One, he's more than just a social drinker, and is never without a flask or soda cup spiked with something. Second, he's not a great student and doesn't have much in the way of ambition or plans after high school. Cassidy dumps Sutter for these reasons. After a night of binge drinking, he wakes up on the front lawn of a fellow student, Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley). She's a bit of a wallflower, but the two of them hit it off and eventually become a couple. As it's a case of opposites attracting, Sutter's friends think Aimee is a rebound, and Aimee's friends don't want Sutter to screw her over.
While their relationship is sweet, when Sutter gives Aimee a gift of a flask filled with booze, it appears that they may be heading down an unhealthy path. Aimee is a good student and has a bright future ahead of her. There's concern about what kind of influence Sutter might have on her. Sutter genuinely wants the best for Aimee though and encourages her to go away to college and stand up to her mother, even though he doesn't seem interested in following his own advice.
As the case with many character-based stories, I felt it was a little on the slow side as far as pacing, but it picks up as it develops. This comes to a head when Sutter reconnects with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler), and is disappointed to find out they aren't all that different. He realizes he's heading down a similar path. The fact that there's an arc and character growth is one of the things I really liked about the film. You're left with a satisfying ending that didn't feel forced.
The chemistry between Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller is fantastic and they bounce off each other in a very real way. Woodley builds on her critically acclaimed performance from The Descendants with another great one. She's extremely natural and perfectly captures that shy girl falling in love for the first time. It doesn't even feel like she's acting. I was actually a little more impressed with Teller though. I liked him in 21 & Over as a fast-talker in the mold of a young Vince Vaughn, but here he shows dramatic depth and that there's a lot more to him. When he breaks down in front of his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), there isn't a dry eye in the theater. Even in her limited screen time, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter's older sister evokes a similar feeling. The entire supporting cast is strong. Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dayo Okeniyi, Brie Larson and Bob Odenkirk are all great. However, the best performance of the film is by the kid that plays Aimee's younger sister. He has no dialog, just flips the bird with both hands. I can't wait to see how his career develops. Okay, I'm kidding a little on that last one. Wouldn't it be funny if he grows up and wins an Oscar and then we go back and remember his first role as the flip off kid from The Spectacular Now.
The dialog is very natural and captures the awkwardness of high school, being unsure of yourself and venturing into a relationship. I expected nothing less from the Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote (500) Days of Summer, which is still one of my favorite films. The Spectacular Now is based on a book Tim Tharp, but I had never heard of it prior to seeing the film. Tharp doesn't even have a entry on Wikipedia. Someone should correct that. While this is a heavier film, James Ponsoldt does a great job of balancing the tone and elements. It's serious when it should be, but sweet and funny when it's not. You get the feeling that you're watching something important. At the very least you have to appreciate that this is anything but a typical, predictable teen romance. Nobody in the film is perfect or can be put in a box. Like real life, you don't always know how things are going to turn out, and at some points it appears the worst may happen.
As much as I've been anticipating the film, I waited a few extra weeks to see it until my favorite theater, The Vine (www.vinecinema.com), was playing it. One of the reasons why I love The Vine so much is that it's a theater that has restaurant food and beer. While watching The Spectacular Now, I found myself drinking at a much slower pace that I normally do. There's nothing like watching a film about alcoholism to make you take a hard look at yourself.
Darker and more emotional than this year's other coming-of-age offerings, The Spectacular Now offers a nice contrast to them. It's one of those films that will stick with you well after watching. It's honest, real, and anything but typical. The great performances from Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller alone make it worth watching, and you can count this film among the year's best. I highly recommend watching it.
4.5 out of 5 Death Stars