More coming-of-age cinema?! Seriously?!

*heavy sigh* We’re barely into September, and this is the fourth movie I’ve reviewed this year about a teenage boy learning profound life lessons about growing up (after Mud, The Kings of Summer, and The Way Way Back). I don’t even have anything against the genre, but too much of anything is bad, you know? Yet here I am, reviewing The Spectacular Now, due to the strength of the film’s cast and its critical reception. Luckily, the film turned out to be well worth the hype.

This film tells the tale of Sutter Keely, played by the up-and-coming Miles Teller. Sutter describes himself as the life of any party, and the title is not undeserved. Miles is an 18-year-old alcoholic who keeps a full flask with him at all times. More than that, he’s a charmer who can talk his way into any bar, and into bed with just about any woman. However, that latter skill is mostly used on behalf of his perpetually single friends. Sutter himself is in a happy and committed relationship with another hard partier, name of Cassidy (Brie Larson). Until she dumps him.

Heartbroken, Sutter goes on an epic bender until he wakes up hung over on someone else’s lawn. He’s discovered by Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), the two get to talking, and they start going out. A beautiful, slightly dysfunctional teenage romance ensues.

To start with, it’s worth noting that both of these characters are completely dependent on the routine of high school life, in completely different ways, and neither of them realizes it yet. Aimee, for example, is a typical “nice girl” who doesn’t seem to do much of anything except go through the motions. She was told to go to school and get good grades, so she does. Her friends ask her for study sessions, so she goes to them. Her family of freeloaders depend on her to provide most of the family’s income, so she does it with the patience of a saint. Aimee tells us outright that she’s never had a boyfriend, and she doesn’t seem to have much of any notable life outside of school.

By comparison, Sutter has absolutely no sense of responsibility. He just glides from one moment to the next, doing whatever feels right at that exact moment. Without teachers and schedules to keep him in check, Sutter’s life would drift without a rudder from one alcoholic haze to the next. Indeed, we actually get a glimpse of this happening during the third act. No one — Sutter himself, least of all — seems to have any idea who he is and what he’s capable of doing after high school. Hell, I’m not even sure Sutter wants to grow up in the first place.

So naturally, Aimee is drawn to Sutter because she’s been cooped up in her boring little comfort zone for way too long. Somehow, he gives her the courage to bend the rules and stand up to the people who have taken advantage of her for so long. As to what Sutter’s getting out of this, that’s a little more vague. He shows a tremendous amount of respect for her intelligence and talents, so it’s not like he’s looking for some virgin to corrupt. The relationship continues and strengthens when Cassidy and Sutter both agree that they’re done for good, so he’s not trying to get back at Cassidy.

(Side note: Yes, Sutter does actually come up with a reason for staying with Aimee. I’m loathe to discuss it, however, since his journey of discovering that is a core part of the narrative.)

Of course, it doesn’t help that Sutter himself is such a hard character to pin down. Aimee is easy to figure out, since she’s so open and honest with everyone, but Sutter is all over the place. He’s an alcoholic, so his mood tends to swing dramatically. He’s a charmer, so it’s hard to tell when he’s spouting bullshit. He’s incapable of long-term thinking, so his wants and motivations change from moment to moment.

But that’s what makes the character interesting.

Sutter is still in the process of figuring himself out, and that’s naturally going to involve a lot of pain getting inflicted in a lot of unexpected ways. The guy clearly has a ton of baggage, and there’s no telling when his old hard-partying days are going to catch up with him. I won’t even get started on his family history and all the nagging loose ends there. The guy has so much to deal with that there’s no telling how his development will go or how it’ll affect his relationship with Aimee.

With all of that said, Sutter is still a very sympathetic protagonist. This is largely because there is nothing malicious about him. He’s not an angry drunk, he’s not violent toward anyone, and he isn’t one of those slackers who resents the success of others. Sutter is a pure optimist who just wants everyone to have a good time. There’s one scene in particular when Cassidy’s new boyfriend (Marcus, played by Dayo Okeniyi) comes in, eager to start a fight with Sutter. Our protagonist could easily go at it with the guy dating his ex, but the scene goes a completely different way. It turns out that Cassidy still talks about Sutter all the time, and Marcus is just jealous. So Sutter lists off all the reasons why Marcus is awesome, reminds the guy to count his blessings, and they part ways as new friends. That was a brilliant scene, and it does so much to exemplify why Sutter is such an inherently likable character. Of course, it also helps that Miles Teller turns in a dynamic, star-making performance that nicely anchors the film.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about Shailene Woodley. You’d be forgiven for scoffing at the notion of Shailene Woodley playing some wallflower who has no experience with men, as if Woodley couldn’t get any guy in that high school she wanted. But here’s the thing: Aimee could have any boyfriend of her choice just as easily, if only she had the confidence for it. This character was portrayed with a complete lack of ego, like she’s a strong and beautiful woman just waiting to happen. It’s a development that Woodley plays wonderfully, and it helps that she brings such warmth to the role that I couldn’t help falling in love with her.

An honorable mention must go to Brie Larson, who does a surprisingly good job as the one that got away. Cassidy is portrayed as a young woman who gradually realizes that she can’t party this hard forever. She wants a proper life, and there’s always the subtle underlying question of whether or not she’s capable of getting it. Nicely done.

Of course, the greatest strength of this movie is in its ability to set a tone. For example, when a painfully awkward conversation is shown on the screen, it’s generally every bit as painful to watch. Yet those awkward moments are paced in such a way that they were never uncomfortable to sit through. I call that a huge accomplishment. Even more improbably, this movie shows us the very first time that Sutter and Aimee have sex, which also happens to be the moment when Aimee loses her virginity. I’ll remind you that these are still high school kids. Over the age of 18, I grant you, but still. This scene could easily have come off as gratuitous or squicky, but it’s staged in a way that’s very tasteful, very tender, and very heartfelt. Oh, and last but not least, director James Ponsoldt has the uncanny ability to put a smash cut to black at precisely the right place and time for maximum emotional impact.

(Side note: By the way, that’s the same James Ponsoldt who made Smashed, one of the most depressingly underrated films from last year.)

Unfortunately, there are a few nitpicks to be found in the supporting cast. Andre Royo is totally wasted on a math teacher who gets very little screen time and ultimately affects nothing. Smashed alumna Mary Elizabeth Winstead briefly appears as Sutter’s older sister, and she’s always a delight to see onscreen, but she has way too much beauty and charm to play such a boring stick in the mud. There’s also Masam Holden, providing some valuable insight in the role of Sutter’s slightly dorky best friend, but the guy pretty much drops off the face of the earth halfway through the picture.

On the other hand, we’ve got Kyle Chandler. I don’t dare spoil anything about his character, since he only appears for a couple of scenes that set the direction for the entire third act. It’s an absolutely vital character in countless ways, so it’s a good thing that Chandler absolutely nails every second of his short screen time. Last but not least is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Sutter’s mom. The character might have been wholly unremarkable, except that her character’s involvement pays off in a huge fucking way during the climax.

All told, I really liked The Spectacular Now. Though it retreads a lot of familiar ground in the coming-of-age genre, the execution is done in very clever and heartfelt ways. It also helps that the story is filled with interesting and nuanced characters, played by a cast of wonderful actors. In particular, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley prove that they both need more high-profile work ASAP. Ditto for director James Ponsoldt.

I’m not sure I would recommend it before Mud, but I’ll save that debate for my year-end list. Right now, I’ll just say that this is definitely a movie to look for.

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