Review: The Spectacular Now

Don Malvasi

In The Spectacular Now, a rich, original screenplay and two strong lead performances form a refreshing coming-of-age yarn–one that will likely stick in your mind for a long time. Avoiding cliches of the teen-film genre, director James Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((co-screenwriters of (500) Days of Summer)) are no dummies when it comes to offering a portrait of high school angst that ultimately has little to do with high school and much to do with life. Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) will pluck your heart without getting too gooey.

Teller and Woodley play opposite numbers. He’s a brimming-with-confidence charmer; she’s an uneasy, demure nerd. When Sutter Keely (Teller) wakes up passed-out on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (Woodley), their meeting starts off slow and gradually takes on steam. She’ll tutor his under-achieving academic side, overlook his increasingly apparent drinking problem, and make him promise to go hard after the withheld information on the whereabouts of his long-absentee father. In short she’ll whip him into shape (except for the drinking) while pinching herself that this life-of-the-party dude actually seems interested in her.

Rebounding at the film’s outset from a break-up with the more conventionally attractive Cassidy (Brie Larsen) Sutter pretends at first that Aimee doesn’t mean squat to him in any serious way. Before we know it he’s asked her to the prom, or was that just the contents of his ever-present liquor cask talking?
The film diverges as Sutter hunts down his pop. Hardly a crock, although teetering on melodrama, these scenes also resonate, largely due to Kyle Channel’s convincing performance as the estranged dad who’s, er, lost his way some. The ever-dependable Jennifer Jason Leigh is on hand as Sutter’s mom–long the protector of Sutter from his dad.

The prowess shown by both Teller and Woodley conjures up pangs of recognition of what it felt like growing up. (The 21-year-old Woodley, won’t be off the radar for long. She’s signed for the lead in forthcoming filmizations of the widely popular teen novels, Divergent and A Fault Of Our Stars.) The Spectacular Now is commendable in not trying too hard, for not getting lost in a thicket of “big moments.” The small and the meaningful, both challenges and joys, come to the fore in all of their despairing confusion. Woodley, who along with the rest of the cast won a Special Jury Award at Sundance, is wonderful. Clue for viewers: these two characters are about as real as it gets.

4 Let’s-Live-For-Today’s (out of 5 stars)

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