The film is directed by James Ponsoldt and adapted by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who previously wrote the romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer,” and are next working on the film version of the YA novel “The Fault In Our Stars”), who are working from the same-named YA novel by Tim Tharp. Tharp’s work was for teens, and so is this film—it is rated R, but only for the things a fair amount of junior and senior high school students actually do in the real world: experiment with alcohol and drugs, fall in love, have sex for the first time. Yet none of this material is exploitative in the film; it’s presented tenderly and realistically, with an acknowledgment of the impulsiveness and sentimentality of adolescence. It’s a spiritual cousin to the ’80s film “Say Anything,” with its charming but aimless protagonist Lloyd Dobler—a teenager not yet a man, not sure of how to become one—and to the ’90s classic “Good Will Hunting,” also about a young man concrete in his personality but unclear about his purpose. How do you plan for life when you have no idea what’s to come? Why not just live in the “spectacular now”?
That’s the mentality put forth by Sutter (Miles Teller, of “Footloose” and “Project X”), a teen who gets through every day with a strong dose of charm, some fast-talking slickness, and a spiked drink always in hand. His mother is always working, the shadow of his absent father (Kyle Chandler of “Super 8”) looms large, his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson, of “21 Jump Street”) has just dumped him, and his teacher Mr. Aster (Andre Royo, of “Red Tails”) keeps pushing him to take school seriously and consider college. But Sutter only wants to live in the moment, so after a particularly insane party, when he wakes up on the lawn of Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley, of “The Descendants”) house, he decides to accept her easygoing friendliness. She starts tutoring him on geometry, he encourages the wallflower to be more spontaneous, and they begin a flirtation that leads to a relationship.
They go to senior prom together. She, like Mr. Aster, encourages him to think about the future. But all around them are doubters, people who question their dreams and whether they can stay together. There’s a prevailing sense of cynicism, of beaten-down hopelessness, in most of these adults, like when they scoff at Aimee’s plan to live on a horse farm one day and work for NASA. Ultimately, though, the question is not whether Sutter’s drinking has become a problem—because it clearly, obviously has—but whether he can turn it around, if he even wants to. Or is living right now more integral to him than ever thinking about tomorrow?
So many films about teens give us either trivial problems or overblown melodrama; “The Spectacular Now” succeeds by rejecting both of those routes. Instead, for the first hour or so of the film, we’re just invited into Sutter and Aimee’s small-town world and burgeoning romance, where we can notice things like how casually Sutter carries his flask everywhere and how brilliant Aimee is. There’s character development that is done subtly, effortlessly, and it helps that Teller and Woodley are fantastic together; it’s obvious why they won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for their work. And the film is most impactful because it allows these characters to make poor decisions—Sutter driving drunk is a paramount example—and it shows the hardships created by those choices. “The Spectacular Now” is painfully realistic because these characters aren’t perfect, because their love might not be able to save them. It’s an important thing for audiences to understand in a teen film genre that is too saturated with falsely secure endings.
In its rejection of typical tropes, “The Spectacular Now” vacillates between being disarmingly sad and invigoratingly hopeful; it’s not nearly as depressing as Tharp’s original novel, but it will still hurt your heart. Yet it’s all the more memorable, and the more meaningful for teen viewers, because of it.
Enjoy reading this review? Check out our roundup of what other films are opening this week.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.