Few films capture the experience of being a teenager with exquisite honesty and grace. "The Spectacular Now" is one of the few.
Sutter and Aimee are not Hollywood teens. They are not obsessed with image, hair, sports, popularity or whom they're dating. They are — and this will come as a great shock to those accustomed to teen horror movies and crass comedies — real people with real problems, leading lives of hardship, awkwardness and angst. They are flawed yet likable, understandable yet infuriating. They are teenagers.
It comes as a great surprise to everybody around them that they start dating. Sutter (Miles Teller), the popular guy everyone likes, has a drinking problem, an estranged father (Kyle Chandler) and a workaholic mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who doesn't understand him. Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is a nerd with one friend. (To be more natural and real for the role, Woodley did not wear makeup.)
After a night of drinking, Sutter passes out on Aimee's lawn. They meet cute when he wakes to her looking at him with an angelic backlight that foretells of her good soul. They bond. He insists to his friend Ricky (Masam Holden) that he doesn't like-her like her, as men are wont to do, and that he will soon be back with his ex Cassidy (Brie Larson). Ricky sees right through the lie, and rightfully so.
Soon Sutter and Aimee start dating, grow close and make love, and we root for them because they're innately good people who deserve to be happy. While Aimee tries to distance herself from a controlling mother, Sutter attempts to reunite with his father.
It's as if director James Ponsoldt has tapped into the heartbeat of modern teen angst, deftly observing the issues that afflict 21st-century teenagers and baring them, heart and soul, on the big screen. Credit also goes to writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — working from a novel by Tim Tharp — for capturing the cadence and colloquialisms of young adult dialog which, along with the story, offer high school students plenty with which to identify.
Though it has many laudable virtues, the movie's representation of the relationship will make the deepest impact. Love has a way of surfacing in unexpected places and, rest assured, no one's more surprised to see Sutter and Aimee together than Sutter and Aimee. In Sutter, Aimee sees the popular guy at school who's the first to show romantic interest in her, and subsequently is her first love. In Aimee, Sutter has a grounded, reliable stability he doesn't think he deserves or wants. Unlike far too many romances, it makes sense for them to be together because we clearly see why they're drawn to one another, and it's not for purely physical reasons. Relationship depth in a high school movie is rarely seen and extremely welcome.
Older audiences will also notice this stark, undeniable truth about "The Spectacular Now": Some people's lives peak in high school. For Sutter, neither terribly smart nor ambitious, life probably won't get much better. His "spectacular now" is now. Aimee, though, has a bright future. It's ironic that one is on top of the world in high school and his life will be nothing more than average, while the other is a nobody in high school but will likely lead a rich (literally and figuratively), successful life.
"The Spectacular Now" is one of the best films of the year.