Published on April 18th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
The Spectacular Now 
Summary: This slow-burning teen drama forgoes gooey romance for character development. The whole cast is strong but the apparent kinship between actors Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley is its core. It's not John Hughes but that's not a bad thing; it just needs to lighten up a bit.
R | 95 min.
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenplay: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber (based on Tim Tharp’s novel)
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson
Distribution: A24 Films
U.S. Box Office: $6,854,611
As I watched The Spectacular Now and thought about its confused teenage lead character, all I could think of was the Ben Folds lyric about “kids these days.”
They get nostalgic about the last ten years
Before the last ten years have passed
That line might as well have been penned with Sutter Keely in mind. Sutter (played by Miles Teller), like his name, is a bit douchey, but also has a ton of heart. The kid has little ambition and almost zero vision beyond his last year of high school, which is rapidly coming to an end.
The film begins with Sutter driving drunk — one of his favorite pastimes, as we find out — after a night of sloppy partying at a local college bar. Cinematographer Jess Hall (Hot Fuzz, 30 Minutes or Less) captures the moment perfectly, with a camera mounted to the driver’s side door of a nondescript sedan. Sutter is screaming out his window with idiotic drunken swagger when the opening title card comes crashing in abruptly.
Right away, you can tell the movie was made with more care than the average teen flick. The Spectacular Now was directed by James Ponsoldt, a filmmaker I think we’ll be getting to know better in the next few years. Its script was adapted from a 2008 National Book Award finalist by the prolific writing team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. These guys have written five major features since 2009 — including 500 Days of Summer and The Fault in Our Stars — and created the short-lived NBC sitcom Friends with Benefits.
When I watch teen movies, I’m always tempted to compare them with John Hughes’ beloved flicks from the 1980s. But as I got into The Spectacular Now, I realized it had more in common with arguably the darkest teen movie of them all, 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. In that classic, James Dean plays a tortured boy who seems too mature for high school but with a self-destructive streak that keeps him distant from manhood. Miles Teller doesn’t have the raw power of Dean — hell, virtually no actors ever have — but he’s got a ton of charm.
The Spectacular Now is an above-average high school drama for a number of reasons, chief being the onscreen chemistry between Teller and his co-lead, Golden Globe Award nominee Shailene Woodley. Teller’s Sutter and Woodley’s character Aimee walk the thin line of platonic friendship and romance for most of the picture, but this isn’t a movie about a love story. The bulk of The Spectacular Now is spent zeroing in on Sutter and his defiance of putting any thought into the future.
Overall, I enjoyed Sutter as a character and could relate to his stubborn reluctance to move on but he’s downright annoying at times. The kid acts like he’s had it so tough but really he’s been sheltered his entire life from real pain and consequences for his poor actions. In one scene toward the end, Sutter has the balls to cry and say, “Nobody loves me,” although nearly every character in the entire film has gone out of their way to show interest in him and care for him. The movie’s biggest hurdle is getting an audience to side with its lead but that’s where Teller’s abundance of charm comes in handy.
Most of those literal supporting characters are played by veteran actors, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler and Bob Odenkirk. Even Andre Royo, who played “Bubbles” on HBO’s The Wire pops up as a concerned teacher. Every one of the supporting players shows up strong, especially Chandler as Sutter’s deadbeat alcoholic father in what I’d call the best big-screen performance of his career thus far. Chandler delivers his lines with such an easy confidence and although he’s only in about three short scenes, they come at just the right time and his character really seems to affect Sutter’s psyche more than any others in the cast.
When you consider these actors, along with emerging A-listers Teller and Woodley, it’s incredible the producers of The Spectacular Now were able to make it on just a $2.5 million budget.
I respect the timeless style with which Ponsoldt directed this film. So often, teenage flicks are designed as time-capsule movies, so that they are easily identifiable with one specific time period when the characters and target audience are the same age. I’m convinced The Spectacular Now could be watched by kids in 30 years and it wouldn’t look dated, save for unavoidable differences like background technology. The film’s soundtrack is unidentifiable and the costumes are minimal.
Bottom line: this movie is about its two lead characters, even if the writing doesn’t give them each a fair shake. Sutter is by far the more interesting, three-dimensional character of the pair. His flaws are worn like clothing and although we see him become aware of them, the final frame of the movie leaves it debatable as to whether he’s done anything to change.
Meanwhile, Aimee begins the movie as the boilerplate beautiful-on-the-inside type we often see in teen films and unfortunately, isn’t given a chance to become much more. As is typically the case with female supporting characters, they can either be saints or whores and while Aimee isn’t technically a virgin by film’s end, she embodies the saint cliché by basically being right about everything that mattered throughout the course of the plot. Watch The Spectacular Now and see if Aimee is ever shown to have a flaw — other than something like “she’s too nice,” which isn’t really a flaw — and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single moment where she’s not perfect.
Things get a bit shaky during the second act, when we teeter into melodrama territory as Sutter throws an embarrassing tantrum at his mother’s work, berating her for keeping his father out of their lives. At one point, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the actress who plays Sutter’s older sister, bursts into tears for no discernible reason. It gets dicey for a minute but as soon as Kyle Chandler is introduced, the ship is righted and we cruise toward a thoughtful ending. Just sit back and enjoy the acting in this picture, it’s something to behold.
The biggest problem I found with this movie is that it needed to lighten the hell up. Being a teenager is mostly fun, especially for kids like this who live in a smallish town with little adult supervision, but I felt the film forgot that. Perhaps the emo mood that hangs over The Spectacular Now is intentional because it matches the moody feelings of a real-life, emotional teenager but it would have been nice to have a few more laughs.
Case in point, during the requisite prom scene, a half-sauced Sutter looks around the room before saying, to no one in particular, “This is the youngest we’re ever gonna be.” It’s thankfully as syrupy as this movie gets.
I applaud James Ponsoldt and the crew behind The Spectacular Now for casting actors who could handle realistic drama and for putting character development above all else. Its plot is sometimes dreadfully slow but Teller and Woodley are so natural together that I never lost interest. This is a rare example of a movie about teens — mostly made for teens — that respects its audience’s intelligence.