Piers Marchant on The Spectacular Now: a bittersweet teen dramedy

August 30, 2013

The Spectacular Now
Grade: 89
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Director: James Ponsoldt
Rating: R, for alcohol use, language and some sexuality — all involving teens
Running time: 95 minutes

By Piers Marchant
for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood,dirt &angels

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Sutter (Miles Teller) is a charming rogue of a high school senior. Happy to be the life of the party, he’s a motor-mouth with a sweet and generous nature that helps to mask his growing alcohol problem. Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is a slightly offbeat young woman who loves science fiction and graphic novels, and at first can’t believe that someone as popular and dashing as Sutter would give her the time of day. But he does, and their friendship blossoms into something a good deal more significant, even though both are facing an uneven future.

Of the two, Sutter is the one at far greater risk. He’s too recklessly enjoying the moment — spending time with his friends, working a men’s retail gig for a supportive boss (Bob Odenkirk), and falling in love with Aimee — to pay much attention to any sort of would-be future, even as everyone else he knows, including his ex-girlfriend (Brie Larson), is busy setting up the next chapter in their lives.

In director James Ponsoldt’s bittersweet teen dramedy, a lot of care has been given to Sutter and Aimee to make them significantly more than the sum of their parts. It’s relatively easy to classify high schoolers as one obviously identifiable thing — as Sutter attempts to do with Aimee when he’s first trying to get to know her — and something else to really imbibe their characters with wit, personality and rough edges, but that’s exactly what Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (working from a novel by Tim Tharp) manage to accomplish.

The film begins like a potential high-school sex comedy. Sutter is busy trying to write a college essay, but instead starts a profanity-laced riff on how he has handled his longtime girlfriend’s defection to another dude. His point is to show how he easily worked his way through any bad feelings and got right back on the party-central horse, but, of course, it unintentionally reveals just how disengaged he is from his emotions. He’s not vapid or vain, but he’s ineffably charming and generous of nature, and has been using that ability for years to keep things at an emotional distance, much as his lout of a father (Kyle Chandler, looking shockingly disheveled) has done, years ago deserting Sutter and his sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and leaving them with his embittered wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

When Sutter meets Aimee, his first impulse is to help integrate her into his wildly popular social scene, but she turns out to be such a good and attentive listener, and displays such naked care for him almost immediately, he feels compelled to take things further.

Despite the set-up, the film deftly defies many of the trappings of the genre. There are tensions, and emotional build-ups, but — save the less-than-fully-convincing ending, which feels too pat given the complexity we’ve been witnessing up until that point — nothing is played for simple melodrama, and no characters are really one-dimensional cartoons. Time and again we worry that Sutter is going to break Aimee’s heart with some feckless decision, or return to his ex, with whom he still enjoys a healthy flirtation, but it turns out he is made of far sterner stuff than he is comfortable showing the world to see. Aimee, too, is filled with surprises. No fish out of water, she quickly adapts to her new world, happily hanging with Sutter, drinking excessively from his flask and basking in the reflected glow of his genuine caring. Indeed, even the obligatory first sexual experience scene is played so loose and intimately, it doesn’t feel titillating so much as winsome.

The young actors who populate the film are all generally put to good use, but as the leads, Woodley and Teller are extraordinary. Teller, in particular, who has to virtually carry every scene, reveals a stunning talent, tingeing Sutter with just the right mix of a young John Cusack-like teen charmer and a heartbroken, abandoned, alcohol-soaked kid who fears he’s secretly somehow universally unlovable. Their chemistry together — substantial and heartfelt — powers the film through any of its mixed ends.

The film also takes pains not to bring us an endless succession of gorgeous twentysomething actors pretending to be dweeby Georgia teens. Woodley, normally a painfully beautiful actress, is dressed down, her natural looks washed out and slightly bedraggled. She is pretty, naturally, but not a knockout, so much so that at first Sutter’s best friend (Masam Holden) doesn’t even get what he sees in her. Sutter, too, though irascible and strangely beguiling, is hardly the stuff of a typical leading man. With his slightly flattened nose and puffy eyes, he looks more like the kid you might expect to see eating lunch by himself every day, rather than the life-of-the-party firecracker he turns out to be.

Going against our expectations, the film takes a serious turn or two into the despair of its characters, in fact, most of the third act is played less for laughs than poignant pathos, but with two kids as well drawn as these, we allow them to have the space to tell their stories as they see fit. The pat ending aside, this is anything but a feel-good high school sex romp, and it’s all the more memorable because of it.


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