95 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Movie teenagers bear about as much resemblance to real kids as movie cops do to real police work.
Which makes “The Spectacular Now” a wonderful aberration, a film that feels fresh and authentic and injects new life into a worn-out genre.
Director James Ponsoldt’s Sundance hit is a love story but it’s also an insightful personality study of two young people who find in each other something each desperately needs.
Sutter Keely (a terrific Miles Teller) is a popular guy at his high school, a funny, friendly senior whose self-effacing humor and deadpan wit suggest he’s far smarter than his terrible grades would indicate. (Imagine the love child of Vince Vaughn and a “Say Anything”-era John Cusack.) He’s popular with both his fellow students and his exasperated teachers.
Unfortunately, his charm masks the fact that he’s an alcoholic-in-training, getting blotto with alarming regularity.
Sutter has a steady squeeze (Brie Larson) who appreciates him for his warmth and fun-loving ways but recognizes that there’s no future with such an unmotivated slacker. With graduation looming (it looks like he won’t be getting a diploma), she tells Sutter that it’s over, though he’ll always be her favorite ex-boyfriend.
Then he’s thrown together with wallflower Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), who on her morning paper delivery route finds Sutter sleeping off a bender on someone’s front lawn. Having misplaced his car, he asks for a ride.
Aimee is practically Sutter’s social opposite. Perennially on the honor roll, she’s quiet, controlled and as responsible as Sutter is feckless. She has managed to get through high school without ever having had a boyfriend. (Woodley, a knockout as George Clooney’s oldest daughter in “The Descendants,” here appears sans makeup in a largely successful attempt to make her look unexceptional.)
Though he initially has no interest in her, Sutter turns on the schmooze (it’s his natural state) and the two slowly are drawn together. For Aimee, Sutter is daring (booze, late nights, partying) without really being dangerous. And for Sutter, she’s a person of substance.
Besides, he’s now single and needs a prom date. And she’s never been.
Ponsoldt and his writers — Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose previous effort was the charming “(500) Days of Summer” — don’t try to get cute. Aimee and Sutter discover each other through long, casual conversations (frequently filmed in extended uninterrupted takes). This is great dialogue, natural and unforced, and as the two start to fall in love we feel the same delicious tingle they do.
Not that theirs is a wholly copacetic relationship. For starters, Aimee seems a bit too compliant when Sutter offers her a nip from the flask he carries everywhere. For a girl who hasn’t dated, she’s may be trying too hard to make up for lost time.
And Sutter has his own demons, particularly the absentee father whose whereabouts are a closely guarded secret kept by his
bitter mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The kid is desperate to meet his old man, but the long dreamed-of reunion is a major disappointment.
His unstable papa is played by Kyle Chandler, late of “Friday Night Lights” and here showing his terrific range. The unfortunate episode suggests mostly that many of Sutter’s problems are genetic in nature.
The film’s title refers to Sutter’s insistence that he live in the present, that the past and the future have no appeal for him. But we’ve seen in his father how that approach plays out over time…and the triumph of “The Spectacular Now” is that we so desperately want Sutter finally find his way.
| Robert W. Butler