The Spectacular Now Review

(3.5 STARS)

Delightfully atypical and marvelously in tune with its lead characters, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now defies the rules of the high school dramedy subgenre as frequently and forcefully as Miles Teller‘s Sutter defies underage drinking laws. It’s a joyful, precious film built around a boy and a girl who love to live and live to love. Like Ponsoldt’s previous feature, Smashed, there’s a lot—A LOT—of alcohol consumed, often at utterly inappropriate times. But unlike Smashed, there’s more to this film’s characters than booze, and because of its thoughtful handling of a complex and pretty unlikely young romance, The Spectacular Now is one of the year’s sweetest films.

We meet Sutter with a beer in hand as he’s trying to complete a college application. He’s hung up when asked to explain the biggest life obstacle he’s ever overcome because Sutter’s life is awesome. He lives in the now. He’s hilarious, popular, and totally fulfilled. At least he thinks so…

After one night of hard drinking, he’s wakes up, confused, on a stranger’s lawn in the company of a shy classmate, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She was completing her mom’s paper route when she saw Sutter passed out. He doesn’t know where his car is, so he accompanies Aimee on the rest of her route, and by the end of their enjoyable little trip, they agree to have lunch together.

As his and Aimee’s relationship progresses, Sutter remains adamant to his friends that there’s nothing romantic between he and Aimee. In reality, part of him does believe he’ll reconcile with his ex, Cassidy (Brie Larson), but the other part is very open to falling for Aimee. This triangle of sorts, thankfully, never begets a fall into melodramatic high school cliches. Ponsoldt has something deeper on his mind. Aimee and Sutter both agree to confront their mothers over long-hanging baggage that’s holding them back. This leads to some painful realizations and genuine trauma, and the lovely romantic notes of the film’s first half will feel like an eternity away.

Teller and Woodley carry the weight of this major transformation on their shoulders, but their performances are absolutely effortless and among my favorite so far this year. Teller, so impressive in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole a few years ago, is a real charmer. He’s also a jackass and incredibly irresponsible, but likable nonetheless. Again, it’s as the film ticks on that we see why he acts the way he does. He’s a wide-eyed kid that’s blocked out any inkling of pain all his life. When he finally realizes it, he’ll break your heart.

Woodley, meanwhile, turned heads with her work in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, but this is the performance of her young career as she gives the potentially one-dimension Aimee real depth. When we first see her, it’s in extreme close-up and she’s got an actual halo of sunlight behind her, giving off the impression that she’s an angel here to save the downtrodden Sutter. While that’s not untrue, both Woodley and the screenplay—from (500) Days of Summer scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber—dig deeper than that. Aimee is sweet and shy and naive, but she’s edgy enough to keep Sutter interested, and drinking-wise, she can almost keep up with her man by the film’s midpoint.

Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh provide solid support as Sutter’s deadbeat dad and distant mom, respectively. And Ponsoldt’s direction is on-point. This is a big step forward for him as a filmmaker, and if he wants to continue down this thematic road, you won’t hear a peep from me. The Spectacular Now is a pretty spectacular film—the kind of smart romance I hope future generations discover and fall in love with the way mine did John Hughes’ films.

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