Maybe the most bittersweetly delightful thing about James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is the way it captures the feeling of a drawn-out ending. For Aimee (Shailene Woodley), Sutter (Miles Teller) and their classmates, it’s the end of high school, a time when everything is bitingly vital and yet nothing matters much, since it’s all going to change in a few weeks anyway. What happens next is of the utmost importance, but no one really knows what that next thing will be, least of all Sutter, who has yet to get around to applying to college. At the movie’s start, he’s writing a half-assed essay about the worst thing that’s ever happened to him: getting dumped by his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), a smart blonde who figured out that Sutter is paying more attention to her and his flask than to anything resembling a future.
What The Spectacular Now teases out, gently and lightly, is that Sutter is full of shit: There’s more darkness in his life than one high school breakup. He’s one of those easy-breezy kids who has just enough charm to get himself out of most trouble and just enough cockiness that you can almost believe that nothing troubles him. When, the morning after not-quite humiliating himself at a party, a classmate he doesn’t recognize finds him on a stranger’s lawn, he takes it in stride. Aimee is out doing her mom’s paper route, so Sutter comes along for the ride, helping her throw papers so she’ll help him find his car.
It’s a very clear trade-off, but the relationship that follows is less tidily balanced, harder to define and paced to perfection, with a few pauses for Sutter to pine after Cassidy. Soon Aimee has a flask of her own, and the kids are making deals about their relationships with their parents: Aimee has to stand up to her mom and tell her she wants to go to college. Sutter has to get in touch with his dad (played by Kyle Chandler in a twitchy, nervous performance that’s so spot-on, it’s uncomfortable to watch).
This is a movie that would fall on its face were it not for its cast. Its teens look real, unpolished; their speech is dotted with overused words and nervous giggles, awkward pauses and uncertain replies. Teller has a weird charisma that was also on display in Rabbit Hole, and Woodley, who’s poised to inherit Jennifer Lawrence’s teen-movie crown, is so good as Aimee that it makes the character’s shortcomings even more frustrating. Aimee is a good-hearted doormat, a mirror, and the screenwriters (working from Tim Tharp’s novel) work hard to justify the box the story puts her into.
When things go off the rails, her suffering is due to her own behavior, which is self-destructive when it comes to Sutter — but the movie is about Sutter, and what he figures out as a result. Is it fair to want Aimee to be stronger? Is that asking for The Spectacular Now to be a different movie? Maybe. (Maybe someday we’ll get the equivalent film about a teenage girl.) It’s because of their flaws and shortcomings that Aimee and Sutter are so recognizable; it’s because Ponsoldt focuses so closely on these specific teens, and their fears and weaknesses and moments of bravery, that the movie works so well. Honest, smart and ugly in turns, it’s a coming-of-age story on a wonderfully realistic scale, unaffected and perfectly cast.
The Spectacular Now opens at the Bijou Friday, Sept. 20.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW: Directed by James Ponsoldt. Screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by Tim Tharp. Cinematography, Jess Hall. Editing, Darrin Navarro. Music, Rob Simonsen. Starring Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh. A24, 2013. R. 95 minutes. Three and a half stars.