The Spectacular Now
Brutally honest high school romance throws cliché under the bus
The Spectacular Now
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler
High school-based films—from 1955’s Blackboard Jungle to 1985’s The Breakfast Club to 1995’s Clueless to 2004’s Mean Girls—have always driven teenage culture far more than they’ve been driven by it. Though filmmakers try their best to reflect the spirit of the times, their films always end up as more fantasy than reality. Even the ones that mirror the occasional hard truths and painful realities of teenage life (2010’s Easy A, for example) are just some Hollywood screenwriter’s time-shifted interpretation of what high school is “really” like.
The Spectacular Now charts a slightly different course. This dark, deeply felt teenage dramedy (with a heavy emphasis on the “dram” and only faint dustings of “edy”) isn’t the kind of film that will be fondly and nostalgically recalled in future years (à la the work of John Hughes). This is no idealized, MTV-approved representation of the class of ’13. Instead it stands firm as a brutally honest assessment of childhood’s waning days.
To our protagonist, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, Footloose), life is one big party. Sutter lives in the now, never thinking about such abstract quantities as “the future” or “consequences” or “hangovers.” Coasting through classes on a solid D average and working hard on becoming a functional alcoholic at age 18, Sutter feels like he’s on top of the world. Blame his long-absent father or his head-in-the-sand mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, sparking memories of Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Better yet, blame him. The happy-go-lucky high school senior gets a dose of reality when his fun-loving girlfriend (Brie Larson, 21 Jump Street) dumps him. College is fast approaching, and she sees the writing on the wall—even if he refuses to. He takes it badly, of course, believing as we all once did that high school loves are the most powerful and everlasting. Things change however when he wakes up drunk on a random suburban lawn and spots Aimee (hot up-and-comer Shailene Woodley).
Aimee is a shy, nerdy girl with a smart head on her shoulders. Figuring she might be good for him (or at least his grades), Sutter starts going out with her. Nothing too serious. At least in his mind. What follows is far from a typical high school romance—which would have involved a few misunderstandings, a dramatic breakup and at least one makeover montage. Instead Sutter actually encourages Aimee to stand up for herself. She tries to help him straighten out his life. The two make for a surprisingly perfect couple. But our boy Sutter is a major mess—far too screwed up to be fixed simply by the love of a good woman. (“You’re not as much of a joke as everyone thinks you are,” says another character by way of a backhanded compliment.)
Lighthearted as it acts sometimes, The Spectacular Now isn’t just another indie coming-of-age tale. Based on the teen lit novel by Tim Tharp, written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (who gave us (500) Days of Summer) and directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed), it is disarming and painfully real. Squint and it’s like an “ABC Afterschool Special” directed by Cameron Crowe (Say Anything..., Singles, Almost Famous). Occasionally bitter and bracing, it won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s damn admirable no matter what.
Teller—occasionally channeling a young John Cusack—walks a thin tightrope, giving us a deeply troubled character we can sympathize with but have a hard time really liking. Woodley, meanwhile, confirms exactly what we were all thinking while watching her in The Descendants: This girl is the real deal. The unhurried pace of the film and the naturalistic dialogue make their performances all the more authentic. No one speaks in catchphrases. Or dresses too cool. And the script scores major bonus points for not treating anyone like a stereotype. Aimee’s nerdy tendencies are never seen as a problem in need of fixing. Sutter’s ex-girlfriend is never reduced to vengeful bitch queen. And Sutter’s party-boy charisma is never seen as a fix-all to his troubles. Shot in real, working-class neighborhoods of Athens, Ga., the film feels overwhelmingly ... well, normal.
The languid, observational style and the lack of frequent, Hollywood-style plot points will probably rub some viewers the wrong way. (This is not Sixteen Candles or 10 Things I Hate About You.) If you’re in the market for something simple, honest and a bit melancholy, however, The Spectacular Now is a grim reminder that the Best Years of Your Life were/are frequently anything but.