A film review by Craig J. Koban October 11, 2013 

RANK: #12


2013, R, 99  mins.


Miles Teller as Sutter Keely  /  Shailene Woodley as Aimee Finicky  /  Brie Larson as Cassidy  /  Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter's Mother  /  Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Holly Keely  /  Kyle Chandler as Sutter's Father  /  Kaitlyn Dever as Krystal

Directed by James Ponsoldt  /  Written by Michael H. Weberand and Scott Neustadter, based on the book by Tim Tharp

I’ve see so many teen romance/coming-of-age films done so poorly over the last several years that it has all but soured me to the prospect of seeing new ones.  Alas, along comes a little gem like THE SPECTACULAR NOW to all but restore my lost appreciation of the genre.  

Most movies about adolescent love and friendships feel artificially derived with characters that are perfunctory instruments to drive the plot forward to a predictable outcome.  THE SPECTACULAR NOW is such an atypical work for how it genuinely renders its young characters and grounds them in a story that has tangible dramatic weight and soulful introspection.  It honors and respects both audience members and its youthful characters, which is ultimately refreshing in an age when young adult films seem beleaguered with stale and lewd humor that cheapens their very existence. 

More crucially, THE SPECTACULAR NOW seems to understand - with razor sharp accuracy and precision - the tumultuous ups and downs of teenage courtship and love.  It’s endlessly perceptive for how it evokes what it’s like to truly become enraptured with someone else and, unavoidably, not knowing what to do next when thorny complications rear their ugly heads.  The two people that fall in love in the film are also complexly rendered and developed; their foibles and problems never feel like the bi-product of a screenplay desperately trying to evoke manufactured conflict or tension.  In a way, the film takes a rather blunt and sometimes harshly honest look at how teenagers view themselves, others, and their own place in the world and thankfully avoids most of the pratfalls of other perfunctory coming-of-age films.  THE SPECTACULAR NOW is certainly sweet and affecting in parts, but underneath that lays a core of understanding for the faults and insecurities of its characters that so many other similar films lack. 



You also most likely won’t find two more convincingly evoked and emotionally raw performances in any film from this year than what Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley offer us here.   Teller plays Sutter Keely, a very popular 18-year-old high school senior on the cusp of graduation.  He has a veneer of kindness and consideration, but that’s just a sly front, as he feigns it in order to get closer to girls.  Despite his arrogance, Sutter is a relatively self-assured and confident young man that certainly has a whole future in front of him.  There’s one problem, though: he seems to hardly give a damn about the future.  He’s also a budding alcoholic, rarely spending a minute of the day (or moment in this film) when he’s not reaching for his whiskey flask or secretly spiking his soft-drink beverages.  For a guy that apparently has it all, Sutter secretly lives an existence of self-loathing. 

Hell, Sutter’s complete unwillingness to commit to any kind of future leads to obstacles with his current girlfriend (Brie Larson), who very quickly dumps him as a result.  To make matters worse, Sutter’s home life is lacking as well, seeing as he has always been resentful of his mother's (Jennifer Jason Leigh) unwillingness to reveal where his long-estranged father has been living for years.  As Sutter’s life further spirals out of control, he turns to even more drinking and reckless behavior.  One morning he finds himself waking up in a strange front yard, obviously passing out from intoxication.  He is awoken by Aimee Finicky (Woodley) while she’s out doing her morning paper route.  Although sparks don’t immediately spring between the pair, they do develop an odd bond very early on: He agrees to help her with her morning route and she’s just happy to have company, being a fairly introverted and shy girl.  

They becomes friends, but the more time they spend together the more their platonic relationship becomes a romantic one.  Sutter’s friends chastise him for “using” an innocent girl like Aimee as a quick rebound girl, whereas Aimee’s friends warn her about hooking up with a womanizing hound that is Sutter.  Despite their obvious difference, Sutter and Aimee find themselves falling for one another and help each other through their own respective and deeply rooted insecurities.  Their budding love is hurt by a few things: (a) Sutter’s continued unwillingness to look beyond the “now” and into a bright future and (b) his torn feelings over his father, which spills over when he does discover from his sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) his actual whereabouts. 

THE SPECTACULAR NOW was directed by James Ponsoldt from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael W. Weber (who previously penned the great (500) DAYS OF SUMMER) and it appears that they all are attempting, I think, to bring back a level of credibility to this genre that has been woefully lacking for quite some time.  Ponsoldt populates his film with actors that look, feel, and sound like teenagers as opposed to – as so many other films do – getting older actors trying to inhabit the minds and bodies of young people.  Beyond the film’s dramatic verisimilitude, THE SPECTACULAR NOW has spontaneity with its characters and story that never makes it feel like you know precisely where it’s headed next.  You also gain an immediate understanding of all of the faults and shortcomings of the film’s characters.  It’s not that Sutter and Aimee are dislikeable characters, per se, but they are not squeaky clean and perfectly adjusted people.  Their tribulations make them come off as more easily relatable and real as characters.  

I can’t imagine any other actors other than Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in this film, as they are both able to forge and sustain such an unmistakable level of unforced chemistry.  They collectively seem to make Sutter and Aimee both imminently relatable as characters as well as ones that feel lived-in to the point where you never doubt their veracity on screen.  Aimee and Sutter feel like believable people with believable issues and believable concerns.  Teller – the wonderful performer from RABBIT HOLE – manages to find a damaged heart and insecure vulnerability in his otherwise cocky and rebellious character.  And Woodley – remember her fine work in THE DESCENDANTS? – has a manner of inhabiting every single scene she’s in with Teller with such a disarming sincerity.  It’s pretty thankless for actors in relative career infancy to give such grounded performances as what's on display here. 

Some will have problems with this film’s ending – not to give away anything, mind you – but I for one found it both fittingly and meaningfully ambiguous.  Sutter and Aimee are characters that are somewhat aimless; they don’t fully grasp where they are headed, and nor should the film’s screenplay.  The title of the film reflects the mindset that the best year of one’s life was the one spent during the last year of high school (live in the now so you don’t regret it later).  Yet, the irony of the film is that there are ample amounts of searing anxiety and uncertainty about both the now and the future for both Sutter and Aimee as they try to not only deal with their own hardships, but also try to become more fully self-actualized people in the process.  How truly wonderful is it for a film like THE SPECTACULAR NOW to invest in its young characters and value them as much as the adult ones?  This is one of the best movie portraits of adolescent love – warts and all – that I’ve seen.  

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