Review: 'The Spectacular Now' is wise beyond its years

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller star as a good girl and a partier in a remarkably honest teenage romance based on a lauded book. A24 Films
Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller star as a good girl and a partier in a remarkably honest teenage romance based on a lauded book.A24 Films
Published August 19 2013
Updated August 22 2013

The Spectacular Now (R) (95 min.) — Sutter Keely is a happy drunk, which a high school senior shouldn't be. Honestly he isn't. Happy, that is. Sutter is a drunk, but a functioning life of the keg party so folks don't notice, or else want to be his friend so badly they won't say anything.

Especially Aimee Finicky, the honor roll mouse whose house is where Sutter awakens hungover on the lawn. Aimee could use any friend seeing past her pimples and grow-into-it nose to notice the promising young woman inside. Sutter notices, envying what he isn't, bent on living in the moment — the spectacular now — as he does. In case of love, who changes first?

Director James Ponsoldt reshapes this question into a remarkably honest teenage romance, tentative at first and then full of complications, eager pledges and breakthrough kisses. Neither Sutter nor Aimee issues ultimatums, but each wants the other to change. Rubbing off on each other only confuses the emotion. John Hughes, meet John Cassavetes.

These are chunky roles for two gifted young actors — Miles Teller as Sutter and Shailene Woodley as Aimee — who shared an acting award at the Sundance Film Festival. Theirs is a startlingly intuitive chemistry, not just the appearance of reading each other's thoughts but conveying them to us. We're never certain of Sutter's sincerity, or Aimee's self-regard, as they probably aren't in their heads.

The Spectacular Now is adapted from Tim Tharp's novel by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, in a far different style but with similarly surprising depth as their (500) Days of Summer screenplay. Ponsoldt's pacing fuses with his characters, allowing emotion to trickle out in extended takes, which can also lead to feeling that the movie is stuck in its tracks at times.

Ponsoldt understands the high school dynamic through which Sutter and Aimee navigate polar social orbits. Each hurts their status with friends, affects the other's grades. Only once does The Spectacular Now stoop to abrupt crisis, but that's Tharp's fault, shuffled along quickly by the adapted screenplay.

The script also offers Kyle Chandler fans to again wonder why he isn't a big movie star yet, playing Sutter's long-absent, alcoholic father, an oak barrel the acorn didn't fall far from. Not to forget Brie Larson as Sutter's over-it former girlfriend, whose impact on Aimee's feelings is solely Sutter's fault. As a wisely devised teenage drama, The Spectacular Now treats kids and adults respectfully, even their foolish weaknesses. That respect extends to the audience. Opens Wednesday. A-

Steve Persall, Times movie critic