“The Spectacular Now” is a fine example of a film that takes themes and elements that we’ve seen countless times before, but does wonderful things with them regardless. Sweet at times and heartbreaking at others, the film packages a couple of great performances and superior atmosphere into one of the best films of the summer.
Directed by James Ponsoldt and based on Tim Tharp’s young adult novel of the same name, the film centers on Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) who, despite his name, is not a rich preppy douchebag in the tradition of Sack Lodge, but is rather a life-of-the-party-type high school senior in an unnamed, presumably Midwestern small town. Drifting through high school, always with a beer in his hand, Sutter lives in the now, as he is fond of proclaiming.
Dumped by his queen bee girlfriend (Brie Larson), Sutter passes out on someone’s lawn one morning when he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley,) a geek girl type who he doesn’t recognize from school, even though she’s long watched him from afar.
The two begin a sweet, tender romance, affected at various time’s by Sutter’s drinking, his torch for his ex, his anxiety over having been abandoned by his father and his complete disinterest in making any future plans. There’s a touch of Lloyd Dobler to Sutter, you know, if John Cusack’s character had downed a fifth of something before holding up the boom box.
So we have a lot of themes: alcoholism, young love, teen sex, absent fathers, teen alienation, small town malaise, and much more. The strength of the film is that it doesn’t deal with them the way so many previous movies have.
I liked that the primary theme of the film is Sutter’s alcoholism, but it’s shown and not told. People aren’t constantly warning him about his drinking, he never says “I’m an alcoholic,” and there’s no dramatic intervention scene. Then there’s the sequence in which the two leads go to visit Sutter’s father (Kyle Chandler.) We kind of know exactly where that scene is going, but it’s presented in such a way that it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
The leads are both amazingly great. Teller- whose resemblance to Mark Zuckerberg is much greater than Jesse Eisenberg’s- absolutely nails the part of a young man who’s not quite as confident and carefree as he appears. And while Woodley- so wonderful in “The Descendents” two years ago- is probably more conventionally attractive than the character was written on the page, she’s just as strong. I said after “Descendents” that Woodley was going to end Kristen Stewart’s career, and with a few more turns like this that’s a near-certainty.
The supporting cast is super-deep too. Larson, currently garnering raves for “Short Term 12,” makes a huge impression in what could have been a nothing part- she just wears a look of world-weary disappointment that’s remarkably affecting for someone who’s supposed to be 18.
Chandler, best known for playing the world’s greatest father on Friday Night Lights, plays the anti-Coach Taylor here, and it hurts to watch. Cable drama favorites Andre Royo (Bubbles from The Wire) Kaitlyn Dever (Loretta from Justified) and Bob “Saul Goodman” Odenkirk show up in small roles, and an unrecognizable Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up for a couple of dynamite scenes as Sutter’s mom.
“The Spectacular Now” is one of the best recent coming-of-age films, up there with last year’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” It’s an affecting, very entertaining film that transcends cliches and sports two great performances from actors that have great things ahead of them.