The high school coming-of-age movie has now been around for so long that it’s hard for each new example of the genre not to feel like a knowing gloss on every one that’s come before. So we have the high school movie gone noir (Brick), gone vampire (the Twilight series), gone comic-book gonzo (Kick-Ass). James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is remarkable for the ease with which it positions itself outside this arena of aggressively stylized self-differentiation.
If this film (adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from a novel by Tim Tharp) has an antecedent in the teen-movie universe, it’s Cameron Crowe’s 1989 classic Say Anything. That movie’s hero, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), a fast-talking charmer with a disinclination to “buy anything, sell anything, or process anything as a career,” shares some DNA with this movie’s main character, the intelligent but unambitious party animal Sutter Keely (Miles Teller). But what really connects The Spectacular Now to Say Anything has less to do with the movies’ content than with the way they both create specific, believable unstylized worlds full of teenagers who relate to one another not through the kabuki of high school social hierarchies (the nerd, the jock, the loser, the prom queen) but as individuals. Screwed-up, occasionally selfish individuals with lousy impulse control, to be sure, but in high school (and often thereafter), what other kind are there?
This movie’s human scale, its unaffected compassion for every one of its far-from-perfect characters, is what kept me on its side throughout. By the time the story veered into borderline sentimentality in the last scene or two—we’re not talking Nicholas Sparks-level sap, just a trace more than you’d expect in such an otherwise naturalistic romance—I was way past judging the movie for such a small infraction. I had already handed The Spectacular Now my heart. Appropriately enough, since this is a drama about the risk, and the value, of giving one’s heart away.
As we meet Sutter Keely, he’s a senior in high school in an unnamed small city (the film was shot in Athens, Ga.), taking a halfhearted stab at drafting a college admissions essay. The only “formative experience” he can come up with to write about is his recent breakup with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), who’s finally gotten fed up with his responsibility-dodging ways. After attempting to forget Cassidy with an all-night kegger-hopping bender, Sutter wakes up at dawn on the front lawn of Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a quiet, bookish classmate he barely knows. She drives him around town to find his missing car, he asks her for help with geometry—and gradually, with the ambivalent stop-start rhythm that characterizes real-life relationships, a flirtation begins to build between the two.
The easygoing, life-embracing Sutter is so much fun to hang out with—tooling around town with a friend sipping from a huge plastic to-go cup labeled “Thirst Master,” he deems everything they encounter “awesome” in a tone that suggests genuine awe—that it takes the audience almost as long as Aimee to notice that not everything in Sutter’s life is all that awesome, and that he regularly spikes the Thirst Master with hard liquor from a pocket flask. Sutter’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an overworked nurse in a perpetually crabby mood, has refused for years to tell her son his father’s whereabouts. When Sutter finally, with Aimee’s encouragement, tracks his dad down, the three of them spend an afternoon together that makes it painfully clear why the estrangement was a good idea in the first place. (Kyle Chandler, cast against type as the shiftless, alcoholic dad, so precisely embodies a certain kind of self-deluded addict that his anxious patter is difficult to watch.)
Aimee’s slow realization that the boy she’s falling in love with is in no particular hurry to become a man—though he may already have a man-sized drinking problem—is only one of the story threads running through this dense, leisurely paced drama. There’s also Aimee’s attempt to stand up to her needy single mother—never seen onscreen—who’s trying to prevent her daughter from leaving town for college, or possibly going to college at all. And the fraught, quasi-paternal relationship between the underachieving Sutter and his boss at the clothing store where he works (memorably underplayed by the comedian Bob Odenkirk). Even Cassidy, Sutter’s ex-girlfriend, gets a story arc that elevates her into more than just a blond popular-girl stereotype.
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley have such a disarmingly direct and spontaneous connection as actors that Sutter and Aimee almost immediately come to seem like a couple you’ve known (or been part of) at some point in your life. You find yourself torn between rooting for these two kids and wanting to sit them each down separately for a stern talking-to about cutting bait and moving on. Woodley, a 21-year-old former child actress who made a memorable feature film debut as George Clooney’s older daughter in The Descendants, gives a stunningly mature and complete performance as the still immature and incomplete Aimee. (But even simply costumed in jeans and T-shirts with no makeup, the lanky, pixie-faced Woodley is a shade too gorgeous to be believable as the girl at school nobody notices.) And Teller, a baby-faced 26-year-old whose restless, boyish energy at times recalls a young Tom Hanks, pulls off the neat trick of playing a Ferris Bueller-esque high school slacker in a way that feels urgent and fresh.
A major plot twist just past the movie’s midpoint—of the entire-audience-gasps-out-loud-in-unison variety—takes The Spectacular Now to some pretty dark and downbeat places for a movie of its type. Dark enough, in fact, that the ending, when it comes, may strike some viewers as a bit of a rose-colored cop-out. I’m not sure Ponsoldt (whose earlier film Smashed also dealt with mutually enabling lovers) fully grapples with the questions the first three-quarters of his film raises: Not only will Aimee and Sutter make it work, but should they? But on the way to that arguably disappointing ending, The Spectacular Now captures the beauty and scariness and lacerating intensity of first love, and for that you forgive it everything.