There's a very real danger in simply living in the moment. While it may sound exciting and adventurous, it also invites complacency and stagnation, a dangerous cocktail made more lethal when alcohol is thrown into the mix. While this may sound like a proper lead-in for director James Ponsoldt's previous Sundance hit, Smashed, it serves equally well for his wonderful coming of age story, The Spectacular Now.
Teen romances are a dime a dozen, but it's rare to find one that has so much meaning and isn't just an excuse to pair up two beautiful people. The film deals believably and honestly with teen anxieties about the future, while also exploring the familial impact of addiction. If that sounds like potentially weighty stuff, that's because it is. Emotions run high from the very beginning and never let up even for a moment, from the joys of first love to painful examinations of one's self worth. Aided by tremendous performances by Miles Teller and Golden Globe nominee Shailene Woodley, we may be looking at one of the year's first truly great films.
Before it gets to all that, the story may look and feel quite familiar. Sutter Keely(Teller) has everything that a high school senior could want. He's popular, forming the elite power couple with his girlfriend Cassidy(Brie Larson), and is always the life of the party. He's also a functioning alcoholic, taking quick sips from his flask at all hours of the day. As the school year begins to draw to a close, thoughts turn to the future. Cassidy, wanting more for herself than just a fun time, dumps him suddenly. Dealing with it the only way he knows how, Sutter drinks himself into a stupor, waking up on the lawn of Aimee Finicky(Woodley), an average and mostly invisible girl from school.
Aimee is a beauty, but doesn't have the confidence in herself for others to see it. On the other hand, Sutter is the complete opposite. A completely charismatic figure with no fear of anything, the two begin a relationship that quickly blossoms into something more. Ponsoldt captures their budding love sweetly and without pretension. The two are a perfect mix on the surface. He emboldens her to stand up for herself and live a little, while she keeps him grounded enough to prevent a total meltdown. Through one another, they learn to deal with their various family issues with strength. Both come from broken homes, albeit via different means, and the added responsibility from such an arrangement has impacted them both. Most telling is the disappearance of Sutter's father (Kyle Chandler), who left the family under bad circumstances years earlier, leaving his mother(Jennifer Jason Leigh) to fend for herself. Sutter carries hopes that his father will someday enter back into his life, despite his family, including his sister(Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hoping for the complete opposite.
The film smashes all genre cliches with its authentic portrayal of the two lead characters. It's always a trap of teen romances to turn it into yet another version of She's All That, with a quick make-over and a cool new boyfriend changing the female's life forever. It's not that simple here, and Woodley captures Aimee's shyness and vulnerability without pushing it on us. While she was excellent in The Descendants and deserving of the acclaim she received, this is a role that requires more maturity and nuance, and the results may again see her in awards company. Teller, who gave as good as he got opposite Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, is no less extraordinary as a guy trying to mask his insecurities under a shield of jokes and liquid courage.
Movies like this tend to do great business at festivals, but don't always measure up after general audiences get done with them. Then again, writers Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter know a thing or two about turning young romances into critical and box office powerhouses, having written the whimsical (500) Days of Summer a few years ago. Much like that film, The Spectacular Now isn't satisfied with giving us the same old fluff, it aims for something deeper and lands a direct hit.