'The Spectacular Now': High School and Consequences

What high school partier Sutter can't realize is that being 18 and in love with the perfect, nerdish Aimee may be the high point of his life.

The Spectacular Now

Rated: R
Writer: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk, Andre Royo, Kaitlyn Dever, Dayo Okeniyi, Masam Holden
Studio: A24
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-08-02 (Limited release)

The Spectacular Now is another soulful story about adolescents careering messily into first loves. It's also not quite so predictable as that sounds. It's a high school movie that doesn’t instantly slot each character into a preordained subculture, then go on to confirm or challenge those stereotypes. It's also a high school movie where teenage partying has consequences.

Both these stories find a center in Sutter (Miles Teller), a life-of-the-party guy who narrates the opening against a flickering montage of his raging good times: drinking, dancing, laughing, leaping into a pool, drinking again. He meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley) when he ends one evening driving woozily all over what looks to be a smallish Southern town, then passing out on some stranger’s lawn.

In waking him up, Aimee is rescuing him from himself, a role the film telegraphs when you first see her, highlighting her face with a fuzzy sun-halo. It will take her the rest of the movie to realize what a gruesome burden she's assuming: she's not so much finding him as he's crashing through her life. We can understand the initial appeal: he's charismatic and he knows, or at least thinks he knows, that everybody loves him.

Being as popular as he is, Sutter doesn’t know Aimee before this night, but she knows him. She also knows herself, uncommonly well for a teenager in a high school movie, and so she displays both self-possession and alluring charms, even though she’s never had a boyfriend, doesn’t drink, doesn’t go to parties, and so on. Sutter isn't quite what he seems, either: he doesn’t immediately assume that the quiet, polite, and studious Aimee is a nerd, and so a girl to be abused and ignored or exploited. That's not to say he fails to exploit her. It's only a matter of minutes before he’s asking for her to tutor him in geometry.

Sutter’s eager, puppy-dog mien indicates that, despite his seeming self-confidence, he really wants everyone to like him. He’s like an unpaid and unasked-for life coach, albeit with a limited vocabulary. “That’s awesome,” he says more than once, along with variations like, “Go for it, because you’re awesome.” Nevertheless, this advice works wonders on Aimee’s dormouse tendencies. Before you know it, she’s drinking from a flask at parties and telling her mom that yes, she’s moving away to college. What Sutter isn’t able to do is take his own advice. And so he procrastinates when pressed to make decisions -- about college, about moving on from an ex-girlfriend (Brie Larson), about dealing with his estranged dad (Kyle Chandler), and about why he’s always hauling around a soda-fountain cup that’s not filled with soda.

The Spectacular Now eases sublimely into the love story, from Aimee and Sutter's meet-drunk through the expected senior-year trials. As he did in Smashed, director James Ponsoldt pays attention to the details of everyday ebbing and flowing, to the ways that moments of light comedy can help to ease us -- viewers and characters -- through crises. He teases warm, naturalistic performances from Woodley and Teller, both of whom have the bright eyes and quick give-and-take of born wits, but not that angular and underfed look of so many young actors. Their faces, their contemplations as well as their delights and disappointments, are set off by smart cinematography that is somehow both lush and nonshowy.

What Ponsoldt can’t completely overcome are the screenplay’s limitations. With their strained and affected emo-rom-com 500 Days of Summer, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber didn’t exactly show themselves to be the masters of authenticity. Working from Tim Tharp’s novel, a National Book Award finalist, their romance here is more convincing, but still marked by awkward elements. Sutter comes with an insecure sidekick, Ricky (Masam Holden), who comes briefly on screen and for little other reason than objecting to his cool friend dating a geek like Aimee. And Aimee herself is given short shrift, an impressively rounded person whose trajectory is cut short to give more space to Sutter’s voyage of self-discovery.

Fortunately, Sutter has sufficient verve and damage to warrant this attention. In part this is a function of his full-blown alcoholism. Late in the film, Sutter (who has uncanny abilities to evade seekers of legal ID) is in a bar, jawing with an old drunk, a scene that offers skyscraper-sized symbolism in a Ghost of Christmas Future way. At the same time, however, the scene demonstrates what the movie does well throughout, helping us to feel what Sutter feels, his sudden understanding and terror that “This will be me in 30 years.” It's a moment of crystal artistic clarity, the sort that Dickens also conjured, amid the mawkishness.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.