Synopsis: A hard-partying high school senior’s philosophy on life changes when he meets the not-so-typical “nice girl.”
Stars: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Director: James Ponsoldt
Running Length: 95 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: The best thing about seeing July’s The Bling Ring was getting to see the first preview of The Spectacular Now and ever since that time I’d been counting down the days until I’d be able to get my butt into the seat. Harkening back to the early days of John Hughes (I’m talking Pretty in Pink era, not Curly Sue thank you very much) yet possessing a style and confidence all its own, The Spectacular Now may not have wound up being the perfect film of 2013 (that honor still goes to The Way, Way Back) but it makes it to the winner circle thanks to two incredible lead performances and director James Ponsoldt’s smart, attention-to-details direction.
Based on the novel by Tim Tharp and coming armed with an observant screenplay by (500) Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, there’s a lot to like within the 95 minute journey that The Spectacular Now takes viewers on. “Like” may be just too…easy of a word. “Relate to”, “empathize with”, “agree upon” could be the better way to say it because there seems to be something at the core of the movie and the lives of the people we meet that will speak to anyone regardless if you’ve been home schooled or passed through the walls of the famed “high school experience” so often put on celluloid.
What sets this movie apart from its contemporaries is how un-clichéd the story develops and how impressive it is that it manages to maintain this for all but a scintilla of time as it nears its conclusion. Though it does rely on the oft-used voiceover narration/college essay as a framing device, I didn’t mind the commentary as much as I normally do because the narration makes sense in the context of the story being told.
High school charmer Sutter (Miles Teller, Rabbit Hole) is living the teenage dream. He’s popular, has a great girlfriend, has a long leash of freedom from his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and generally deals with each new life situation with a can-do spirit. The trouble is, all of that positive energy and care for others is masking some inner conflict he’s not ready to deal with. We’ve all had to face these moments when we look around to see that we may possess everything we could ever want yet are frightened to recognize that maybe having it all doesn’t equal happiness…or at least what we thought happiness was meant to be.
Sutter is also an alcoholic…a hard subject for a teen romance to deal with yet an important one to call out as it’s a growing problem in our schools. In their small town, Sutter has no trouble finding liquor or going to work with a flask to freshen up what’s really being held in his Big Gulp. As the movie begins, a misunderstanding has caused a rift between Sutter and his girlfriend (Brie Larson) and after a night of hard partying he wakes up on the lawn of a home on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants) paper route.
A classmate he’s never noticed, Sutter befriends Aimee and a relationship soon develops. Is Sutter using Aimee as a rebound, as a way to get back at his girlfriend who has moved on, or does Aimee’s understanding and sensitivity to the pain she sees beneath his surface mean that Sutter can finally be seen and loved for who he truly is? These are the very adult questions being asked in a movie that could be carelessly classified as just another trivial teen romance.
It’s Teller and Woodley’s dynamic chemistry together and apart that make the movie really ignite. Teller fits the bill for his character but never lets Sutter drift into maudlin sentimentality just because he’s finding new corners of himself. Woodley too shows an introspective maturity that far exceeds her years as she takes Aimee through first love to heartache and back again. Though Aimee takes some selfless, hard turns that are tough to watch and may be frustrating to some, they all feel like they are coming from the right place and have an earthy truth that side-steps hitting a false note.
If anything, it’s the supporting characters that don’t live up to the performances of Teller and Woodley. The young actors that portray other members of Sutter and Aimee’s social circle don’t come across with the same confidence and it’s not just how they’re written. They seemed to be playing catch-up in a race that Teller and Woodley were always destined to win. Leigh has a nice turn as Sutter’s sometimes distant mom and Kyle Chandler gets the job done as Sutter’s estranged father.
The movie trips a bit when it gets to these scenes with Sutter and his father because it appears the writing is on the wall as to the cycle that Sutter seems to be on. Thankfully, the script is smart enough to take a flimsy contrivance and spin it into, if not gold, a solid silver of an ending.
With a few genuinely surprising elements, The Spectacular Now is absolutely a movie to seek out and soak in. The lead performances are some of the best you’ll see all year from two rising stars and Ponsoldt is quickly establishing himself as a director with depth and a keen eye for casting. Worth a serious look from viewers that don’t mind a little heartbreak at the hands of honest men and women.