Just when you think you’ve had it to here with movies about teenagers and their damn problems, along comes The Spectacular Now to redeem the whole debased genre. There hasn’t been a movie quite like this since Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, and that was 24 years ago.
The Spectacular Now is written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (from Tim Tharp’s novel) and directed by James Ponsoldt. Neustadter and Weber were the authors of 2009’s supercharming sleeper hit (500) Days of Summer. The two men bring the same freshness and quirky vision to Now that they did to Summer, although they’re telling a much more conventional story, without the earlier movie’s freewheeling time-out-of-joint structure.
Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, a high-school senior and hard-drinking party boy (in Tharp’s book, the setting is suburban Oklahoma City, but the movie leaves its precise location blank). Sutter’s a glib charmer, the life of every backyard kegger, and it seems everybody likes him. We first see Sutter as he wrestles with the essay question on a college application: “What is a particular problem or challenge you’ve faced in your life, how did you deal with it, and how has it prepared you for the future?” Sutter doesn’t think in those terms; he lives entirely in the moment, and all he can think to type on the application is what an awesome pair he makes with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson).
Then, Cassidy dumps him. The reason for the breakup is due to such a simple misunderstanding and is so easily straightened out, that it’s clear to us, if not to Sutter, that she’s been looking for the excuse for some time. When he crashes a party to try to get her back, she’s already with Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), the school football star. After the usual awkward confrontation, Sutter retreats with elaborately tipsy dignity and launches himself on a serious drunken binge—though it takes a few stops before he finds a bar where they’re not too serious about seeing his ID. A quartet of college girls drink and flirt with him before ditching him for greener pastures. The night becomes a smoky, boozy blur.
When Sutter wakes up, he doesn’t know where he is or what happened to his car. Leaning over him, relieved to learn that he’s not dead, is a vaguely familiar face. It’s Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a classmate he barely knows, but who knows him well—by reputation. It’s 6 a.m., and Aimee is on her way to deliver the morning papers, so Sutter offers to help if, as she drives around, she’ll help look for his car.
What develops from there is a change for them both. The slick show-off Sutter, who seems always to be trolling the waters for his next girlfriend, sees Aimee as a lunch buddy and math tutor; romance (or his idea of it) is the last thing on his mind. Aimee, more easily smitten, is surprised to have the attention of an “important” guy like Sutter. (Not all her friends are as easily impressed. One, when Sutter tries to glad-hand her by introducing himself, ignores his outthrust hand with an icy, “Yeah, I know who you are.”)
Teller and Woodley have a remarkable chemistry, and it’s no surprise they shared a special acting award at the Sundance Film Festival. This shows especially in what must surely be one of the most tender and sensitive losing-your-virginity scenes in movie history. Director Ponsoldt’s hand is particularly sure here, as the couple’s urgent whispers mingle with the suddenly intensified sounds all around them. (Somebody run this scene for Judd Apatow to show him there are other ways to treat sex.)
The psychological suspense of The Spectacular Now is simple: Will Aimee pull Sutter up to her level, or will he drag her down to his? It’s one of the mature beauties of the movie that in the end, we don’t know exactly where the two will go from here. Ponsoldt’s last shot is a long close-up of one of his two young stars. The face is mobile and expressive, yet we can read into it almost anything we want to see—and probably a few things that we don’t. At the very least, Sutter Keely has begun to understand that there can be things even more spectacular than “now.”