Everyone knows, or has known, someone like our protagonist in The Spectacular Now, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, Rabbit Hole). He's the popular jock - a likable, confident guy who is a lot of fun to be around, but we know isn’t going places. He's the class clown who doesn't care about his grades and holds no aspirations for college. In fact, he seems to have no aspirations at all, other than to breeze through his casual job, cruise around the neighbourhood and have as much day-to-day fun as he can. He's the kind of guy you enjoy having around, and who's wild behaviour you humour, but ultimately feel a little sorry for. Sutter is also a guy that has developed, through the introduction to alcohol from a young age, a concerning drinking problem. This affliction creates a suppressive haze over Sutter’s grim realities and an exaggerated carefree attitude. Young love, coping with an absent parent and learning to personally cultivate your individual identity, with timely consideration for not just the present, but the future too, are other key themes addressed within. The Spectacular Now is adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel of the same name by Scott Neustadteu and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer).
James Ponsoldt’s (Smashed) touching film hits pretty close to home, as I reflect on my not-long-passed high school life. Despite its intermittent humour and lovely moments, there is a melancholic mood to this film as we follow Sutter through his most saddening of life lessons. It is a sincere, often-uncomfortably realistic look at the teenage experience – both the wonderful and the hurtful chapters. It tackles the glories and inadequacies of living in the now and focuses on that confusing stage of young adulthood when natural feelings of cynicism and optimism collide, and when one is forced to grow up, accept responsibility, and start to consider the future.
It is when Sutter meets Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, The Descendants) that his perspective on life begins to change. Amy is a quiet, sensible, responsible and studious sci-fi fan with an immaculately tidy room. But she's also shy and has low self-esteem. Despite them being polar opposites Sutter charms her, and having never had a boyfriend prior, Aimee responds to the unexpected attention and quickly falls for him. Influenced by Sutter, we see Aimee begin to change, growing more confident in her skin, while never relinquishing the maturity beyond her years. With Sutter initially looking for a rebound from his ex, Cassidy (Brie Larson), we get the sense that Aimee has set herself up to have her heart broken. But it turns out there’s just something about this girl, and through her Sutter sees a chance to turn himself around.
The early encounters between Sutter and Amy work because of what the two performers bring to their characters. The conversations between these kids are completely authentic. Woodley and Teller are outstanding, with Woodley particularly making a name for herself, booking the lead role in the upcoming Divergent franchise. They are perfectly cast, and have clearly been given plenty of freedom to add in their own nuances. They have fun, offer each other timely advice and despite having just met, share their anxieties like old friends. Some first experiences and a prom date later and Aimee starts thinking about her future - plans to move to Philadelphia for college, and with Sutter in the blueprint. But, as we know, Sutter is never thinking about the future. He seems trapped, unable to fully understand who he is and who he wants to be. He has flunked school and a saddening discovery about his father has left him a mess. The emotional centre of this film is where it’s power lies, and the drama is drawn from the tension between the characters by the intelligent script and the sensitive direction.
The host of supporting actors all leave an impression with their authentic characters. The hugely talented Larson has some great moments alongside Teller, portraying a character that still cherishes their past together but having realised that Sutter wasn't right for her in the long term, is trying to compassionately move on. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Sutter's hard-working, but neglectful mother, Kyle Chandler as his absent, dead-beat dad and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his successful older sister. Bob Odenkirk as Sutter’s kind, understanding boss, and Andre Royo as his frustrated but approachable geometry teacher, round out the fantastic ensemble.
The Spectacular Now is another winner from Ponsoldt and the writing team. They have absolutely nailed that confusing high-school/college cusp period, and it is an emotional journey along with these endearing teenagers as they grapple with how their families and relationships influence and shape their path into adult life.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22