I don’t know if I am the right person to review teen centric movies these days. I realize that writing that previous sentence makes me seem like an old codger of a man, but frankly I have never been one to enjoy the usual Hollywood affair of High School, teen movies. In their minds, Hollywood minds I guess, teen movies need to be raunchy laugh fests or some sort of hybrid, love story meets a coming of age lean with some overtly juvenile humor because you know, teens. Their depictions of life’s problems are blown out of proportion, the love is sickeningly cute or unrealistic and nothing truly feels authentic when watching these sorts of movies. Sure there are the cultural touchstone movies like The Breakfast Club or even to a certain extent The Perks of Being a Wallflower that manages to make the high school melodramas seem important and personal to us, but I think they lack a little something that truly makes it hit home.
It wasn’t until I saw The Spectacular Now, that I realized that we can get a high school movie with characters who aren’t just picked out of a yearbook of archetypes and clichés, that we can get a movie with characters we can truly resonate with and a movie that we can see and relate to the pangs of growing up and not knowing what to do with life. I don’t want to say that this IS the quintessential high school/coming of age movie, but it sure feels like we are witnessing something spectacular.
Adapted from a novel by Tim Tharp, James Ponsoldt directs this beautiful coming of age story about two high schools teens, both from different ends of the spectrum, learning to grow and love one another while dealing with the dreaded thought of the future after high school is over. Sutter Keely (Miles Teller of Project X) is the cool kid of high school. The jokester, the guy you want to hang out with, a person who will try and hook you up at a party and completely affable in his ways, only wants to live in the now of life. His relationship with Cassidy (Brie Larson), the complementary other side of the coin to his high school persona, is on the rocks and she is moving on with her life and looking towards the future. Sutter goes through some drinking binges and ends up on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley of The Descendants) a mousey, quiet girl who is someone that Sutter would never associate with, finds him and starts a friendship with him. The two bond over Manga, some shared moments of drunken banter and eventually the two fall for one another while having to deal with both the now and future together.
While it seems like a story you have heard or seen many times before, the writing and acting in The Spectacular Now truly sets this film apart from the miasma of other like-minded films. Miles Teller gets the breakout role his acting career deserves with Sutter Keely, as his portrayal of the living in the moment teen couldn’t have been better. Sutter is that kid in all of us that just wants to live life in a care free manner, but that young adolescence only seems cool in retrospect when you watch Sutter go through life with no path or direction. College? Whatever. Career Path? Meh. Just let me drink and see what happens seems to be the motto of Sutter and Teller puts on a believable performance that will have you endeared to him and also angry. Shailene Woodley in my mind makes this movie all the sweeter with her portrayal of Aimee Finicky. The antithesis of the girl you saw in high school, but never interacted with, Aimee is a young girl with some ambition, but a more forwarding thinking person with her goals, looking towards a future with Sutter after their relationship blossoms.
This is truly what sets apart The Spectacular Now from other romantic, coming of age movies. The two leads couldn’t feel any more natural and engaging when they are together on screen. Both complete the other in a ways that feel authentic to the audience and even allowed myself to root for them the entire way. Bonding over the little things in life, to their first kiss, the moment they share their first intimate encounter, everything feels so special and emotional that it draws you further into their relationship. The leads both come from a fractured home, Sutter whose dad is no longer apart of his life and Aimee’s dad who is dead. They both have something missing from their lives and their emotional problems are amplified by their shared experience in drinking and finding Sutter’s father (Kyle Chandler), who negatively impacts Sutter more than he realizes. Teller and Woodley have a natural and realistic appeal to them, both coming off as actual teenagers and not the glamorized Hollywood ideal of a teenager. Their acting propels the film and pulls in the viewer to share in their experiences of dealing with life and love.
The Spectacular Now is a summer movie gem that breaks away from over stylized pictures of the summer for a more toned down, story driven narrative. The story itself deals with a myriad of issues, but doesn’t seem to touch on the most important and nagging issue in my mind, which is the underage drinking. Sutter is an alcoholic, functioning as he may be, but his drinking effects everything in his life. His drinking is the cause for his meeting with Aimee, his drinking vibe is passed off onto Aimee who becomes like him in a way, and it is a plot point at times where he drinks to hide from a painful moments, sipping away at his Styrofoam cup and flask. The crutch is there, but the consequences of his drinking are too quick and don’t leave a particularly deep cut in the movie. That is something that should have been discussed, but I guess when you look at it, teens will drink and drinking is weirdly apart of his life.
A few other issues range from wild emotional swings in particular characters to unfinished conclusions with storylines that unravel at the end of the film. It leaves you wondering about what will truly become of the teens, but uncertainty is a part of life and the movie embodies that notion.
I can’t recommend this movie enough to everyone. With a few blemishes on the film, this summer movie gem is still flawless in many ways. It isn’t unique in its story mind you, but the way it puts so much heart and realism into the film with Teller and Woodley at the helm. In a lot of ways, the more I think back on this movie, the more I see myself a little bit in each character. Wanting to still retain some essence of freedom and living in the moment, but you have to go forward with life, you have find something wonderful that makes you a better person gives you something to look forward to in life.
It’s pretty heavy stuff that this movie deals and not really the typical high school/teen movie you are used to seeing. I promise you though, there is no better movie out there that captures the essence of being young, growing up and dealing with your problems, and how the right kind of love in your life will help you grow into a better person.
Perhaps we are all a little bit like Sutter and Aimee, wanting to live in the moment, but optimistic about the future. Live in the now and see The Spectacular Now.
Rating: 4.5 Big Gulps out of 5
By Nick Guzman