“Coming-of-age tale” may be an apt – though overly-simplified (and over-used) – term to describe James’ Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, but it in no way encompasses the honest, heartfelt and believable portrayals taking place by leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Yes, they do “come of age”, but there’s so much more to this touching tale of a popular high school slacker and budding alcoholic and the girl with whom he finds himself pairing up in the wake of a breakup with his former girlfriend, whom he still desires. Complementing the fine portrayals is a sympathetic script (based on the Tim Tharp novel) by writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer) that provides bona fide situations and relationships, both new and old, as they develop naturally and believably. What’s also good about it is that it captures its high school environs nicely by doing away with all the hip teen lingo, overly phone-centric lifestyles and every other modern cliche usually found in such settings.
Teller is Sutter, a high school senior who breezes through his classes and his life on his natural charm and easygoing nature, which is spurred on more than a little by the cup which is almost always in his hand and almost always filled with some sort of booze. Sutter isn’t an alcoholic – yet – but the signs are there, the most glaring of which is his flask that is never not on his person. But as it’s not that big a deal – yet – Sutter, who is at every party where there’s plenty of other kids drinking, pays it little to no mind. What is constantly on his mind, however, is Cassie (Brie Larson), his former girlfriend who dumped him over a case of mistaken situation with another girl (you know, the kind that sustained every episode of Three’s Company for seven years). Even after a short reconciliation that blew up when she started dating the handsome class president, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), Sutter is maintaining a discreet holding pattern, hoping that the opportunity will present itself to get back together.
But that holding pattern is disrupted when a night of drinking finds Sutter ending up on the front lawn of Aimee (Woodley), a pretty, but somewhat frumpy girl who goes to the same school. Their unlikely relationship starts off oddly as he helps her with her early-morning paper route in the hopes of finding his missing car. It progresses to her tutoring him, later the friendship zone, then an unexpected boyfriend / girlfriend deal that progresses at a careful pace, even though Cassie is always in the back of Sutter’s mind. Other things are also going on for Sutter. The subject of his missing father comes up in discussion with Aimee and Sutter realizes that he’d like to find him, despite his mother’s tacit objections. She won’t tell him where his father is nor even give him his phone number. Sutter finally has to go around her and get the number from his older sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, hanging out on set for a couple days).
As for Aimee, she’s debating leaving town for Philadelphia to go to college, despite her mother not wanting her to go and leaving her in the lurch with the paper route. She’s also not unaware that Sutter still has feelings for Casssie, but she doesn’t make a big deal about it, even though she finds herself invariably falling for him, just as her best friend warned Sutter she would. Sutter comes to rely on Aimee to back him up in family situations he feels will be awkward, like dinner at Holly’s and her husband’s (he’s a well-to-do lawyer and she now a hoity toity housewife), and especially when he decides to go visit his father. That visit doesn’t go as planned and Sutter, who had been slowly sinking in his issues, suddenly freefalls emotionally.
Aimee and especially Sutter are just very genuine characters, given fine portrayals by Teller and Woodley. Woodley has been and is already making a big name for herself in The Descendants, her almost and still-possible turn as Mary Jane in the Amazing Spidey franchise and the possible upcoming young adult uber-franchise of Divergent. Her Aimee is sweet, very much the girl-next-door without it being trite and sincere. I’ve slept on Teller to date, whose biggest roles have been in Project X and Footloose. But the guy is dialed in as Sutter, finding the emotional grooves in which to slide, deftly shifting into one after the other, slowly but surely going downward emotionally. His chemistry with Woodley is natural and heartwarming.
Ponsoldt (2012’s Smashed), Neustadter and Weber have crafted a very nice and credible teen romance and overall a high school surrounding. Mostly the banal and hackneyed high school situations that could have very easily developed blessedly don’t, and they actually know how to portray teens as people rather than the pre-adult caricatures they often are. Case in point, the inevitable showdown between Sutter and Marcus over Cassie doesn’t take place in the school cafeteria at high noon nor outside in the parking lot after classes nor at a party (although some words are exchanged there). Class president / star athlete Marcus doesn’t have a posse of yes men and Sutter’s not the counterculture outsider who aspired to date out of his class. That situation, and all others concerning the high school settings, are authentic and thankfully not “Hollywood”.
The Spectacular Now overall is a genuine and tender story of finding love in an unexpected place and taking responsibility for it, as well as coming to terms with adulthood and certain realities of life.
[Rating: 4 stars]