Teen movies tend to fall into different camps, just like teenagers in teen movies. The nerds, the jocks, the princesses, the outcasts — there’s a cinematic equivalent to each, which is why Can’t Hardly Wait and Superbad and Friday Night Lights and Donnie Darko and Clueless all have precious little in common.
Still, they all have their place in the teen movie pantheon, and you can clearly tell which audience each movie is “for.” But the latest teen movie is one that willfully strays away from the pack, claiming no such allegiance. You could argue that The Spectacular Now isn’t “for” anyone. It may be a little too easy-going and real for most teens (though some might appreciate its rare feat of getting teen life right). Its perspective is wise and perceptive, its ambitions small.
The Spectacular Now was heralded at this year’s Sundance as one of the films to watch, and it’s easy to see why — it tackles teen drinking in a way that has seldom (if ever) been tackled this way before.
The Spectacular Now tells the story of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) — with a name like that you’d expect to find him on Gossip Girl rather than in an indie drama like this. He’s 18 years old, the life of the party — the problem being that the party is ending as soon as his friends go off to college. Sutter doesn’t apply himself well at school and doesn’t really think about the future, preferring to live in the “now” (which is indeed sometime spectacular for him). But his friends are already getting wise to the fact that the future holds bigger and better things in store, and already they’re pulling away from him. His ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) wants someone serious, which is how she ends up with a popular jock and class president instead. Perhaps that’s how he ends up focusing his attention on Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a smart but naive 17-year-old who has never had a boyfriend before.
At first, Sutter charms us like he does everyone in his life. He’s a typical teenage boy in so many ways, and he’s basically a nice guy. He has a gift for flattery that comes across as genuine, and he seems like someone you’d want to hang with. But as we discover, Sutter’s dalliances with drinking aren’t just the typical teenage partying — the guy carries a flask almost everywhere he goes and is constantly sipping from a giant cup filled with booze. Nearly everyone in Sutter’s life is wise to his tricks, but Aimee is someone who is coming to him fresh, still charmed by his antics rather than pitying him, and doesn’t seem to see his drinking as a problem. Aimee’s hoping to attend college in the fall and probably doesn’t need Sutter’s alcoholic influence; his initial attraction to her is reluctant, since she’s not the type he typically goes after. Their connection is genuine, but Sutter also has a lot of issues that Aimee isn’t picking up on, and we can’t help but feel that one way or another, she’ll end up being hurt by him. Sutter thinks so, too.
Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber gave us (500) Days Of Summer, one of my favorite movies from 2009, a film that explicitly stated that it was not a love story. The Spectacular Now is partially a love story, but its attention is fixed much more closely on Sutter than it is on Aimee. We’ve seen plenty of movies about party guys who are aging out of their youth, but hardly any (none that I can recall) about one so young. There’s an extra layer of tragedy to the fact that Sutter’s life is seemingly over before it has really begun; he’s given up on himself at a startlingly early age. The Spectacular Now examines how the actions of his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and particular his father (Kyle Chandler) contributed to his problem, and his more fortunate sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seems to realize that Sutter is, quite likely, doomed. The children in The Spectacular Now are very much products of their environment, though they also have some key decisions to make about just how long they’ll stay in that environment.
The Spectacular Now is not exactly a riveting entertainment. It unfolds at the speed of life and has long takes with naturalistic dialogue. It sneaks up on you, but packs an emotional wallop near the very end. Our attachment to the characters may surprise us by the time it’s over. At its center are two impressive performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, both of whom come across about as genuine and honest as film characters can be. It was directed by James Ponsoldt, who tackled alcoholism in his film Smashed from last year as well, and it’s one of the least contrived teen movies I can think of. The climax is perhaps a bit rushed, with Sutter coming to a conclusion a tad too easily, and maybe we’d like to know a little more about what’s running through Aimee’s head in the latter half of the movie. (Then again, she’s a 17-year-old girl in love.) All in all, though, it’s a teen movie that ignores “types” of teenagers all together — there’s no great divide between who’s popular and who’s not. It’s not so much a teen movie as a movie about people who just so happen to be teenagers. Yet it captures young love — and all that goes with it — in an invigorating and honest way.
The “now” in The Spectacular Now isn’t all that spectacular. It’s actually pretty ordinary. And in capturing it so openly and realistically, The Spectacular Now manages to become something rather revelatory.