Directed by: James Ponsoldt.
Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber based on the novel by Tim Tharp.
Starring: Miles Teller (Sutter), Shailene Woodley (Aimee), Brie Larson (Cassidy), Masam Holden (Ricky), Dayo Okeniyi (Marcus), Kyle Chandler (Tommy), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Sara), Nicci Faires (Tara), Ava London (Bethany), Whitney Goin (Aimee's Mom), Andre Royo (Mr. Aster), Bob Odenkirk (Dan), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Holly).
The Spectacular Now is that rare film for teenagers that doesn’t try to preach good messages at them, nor try to shock the audience with teens abhorrent behavior (like the collected works of Larry Clark). Instead, it deals with teenagers openly and honestly – it treats both the characters and the audience with respect. Yes, one could argue that the film is a “message” movie, or that the plot could have easily been made into an afterschool special – but as Roger Ebert never tired of saying “A movie isn’t about what it’s about – it’s about how it’s about it”. That is certainly true of The Spectacular Now which took what could have been a formulaic plot and preachy movie, and turned it into a quietly moving character piece.
The movie stars Miles Teller as Sutter – a high school senior, who is always the life of the party. When we first meet him, his beloved girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) has just broken up with him, and Sutter goes on a bender – or more accurately, uses the break-up as an excuse to do what he was going to do anyway, and get hammered. Sutter gets hammered a lot, and drives around town drunk – but as Cassidy says “He drives better this way” – which is the type of thing alcoholics tell themselves. The next day when he wakes up on a random lawn, his car nowhere in sight, Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is standing over him. They are in the same year in school, but barely know each other. Sutter is popular, Aimee is not. But she’s sweet and kind to Sutter – drives him around the neighborhood as she’s on her paper route to help him look for his car. The two agree to have lunch one day at school that week. And so an unlikely romance begins.
You can probably see where the movie is going in terms of its plot – and largely you would be right. The Spectacular Now features many of the scenes you would expect in a typical teenage movie – including prom, graduation, experimenting with sex, etc. – and yet it deals with each of them in a much more realistic way than the typical movie does. This isn’t a film like She’s All That, where the popular kid takes the wallflower and turns her into the beauty you’d have to be blind not see she was all along. When Aimee walks into prom, she’s looks nice – but she isn’t gawked at by everyone. Even the relationship between Sutter and Cassidy feels natural – she still “loves” him, but knows it’s best for her to put some distance between them. She doesn’t suddenly become a bitch when she sees him with someone new.
The movie handles pretty much everything well – including the scenes where Sutter has his long term delusions about his father (Kyle Chandler) shattered. It would have been easy to make these scenes into a standard issue blowup – with the two yelling at each other, but the way director James Ponsoldt handles it is just about perfect. That goes for most of the rest of the movie as well. It’s refreshing to see a movie about teenagers that deals with them this openly and honestly – that doesn’t shy away from clichés at times, but makes those clichés feel real. It isn’t always prom that changes people lives – but smaller, more intimate moments.
In this, the movie benefits greatly from the performances by its entire cast. Teller is excellent as the teenager who views himself as invincible and has an inflated sense of himself – nothing can harm him, everyone loves him, he doesn’t need college, etc. He’s the life of the party, and he’s more than happy to live in the “now” rather than think about the future. The movie is really his story as he gradually realizes that many of those things simply are not true. Throughout the movie he grows up – at least a little – and makes steps towards improvement. For her part, Woodley nearly matches Teller, as the shy girl who gradually opens up. If she doesn’t quite match Teller, it’s because her role isn’t quite as well defined – this is almost certainly do to the fact that the highly acclaimed book by Tim Twarp the movie is based on is written from Sutter’s point of view. There are times though that you have to wonder what she is thinking – why she falls for Sutter so hard, although Sutter is certainly partly correct when he cruelly tells her she only loves him because he’s the first person to actually notice her. But she’s young, in love and doesn’t notice the flaws that finally drove Cassidy away. Speaking of Cassidy, the immensely talented Brie Larson does an excellent job at making her a fully rounded character in limited screen time – she makes you care about her character quite a bit, and worry for her as well. Does her final revelation to Sutter actually sound like a good idea to you? Or is she simply going too far in the other direction? And finally Kyle Chandler does an excellent job in just a few scenes as Sutter’s father – essentially acting as a time machine to let Sutter know just what he’ll become if he continues the way he’s going. Yes, the movie may in fact underline this a little too heavily with some on the nose dialogue – but Chandler sells it.
I also loved the way the movie ended. To those who have read the book (which doesn’t include me) some thought the ending to the movie was more upbeat than that of the book. But in reality, it’s really an ambiguous ending. What precisely does the look on Aimee’s face in the final frames of the movie really mean? That’s up to the individual viewer to decide. But regardless, it’s just about a perfect way to end this uncommonly intelligent, sensitive movie about teenagers.