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.