It is perhaps, partly at least, the failure of so many filmmakers to capture the teenage experience with any sense of accuracy or compassion that makes The Spectacular Now such a treat. This is a terrific film that presents a refreshingly realistic portrayal of adolescence that will no doubt strike a chord with many viewers. Directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed) from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber that was adapted from a novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now is incredibly realistic in its depiction of those final months of high school that bring both the weight of expectation and the trepidation about what the future holds.
Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, a high school senior who initially presents as a character more likely to appear in one of Teller’s previous films, such as Project X or 21 and Over. However, we soon learn that his outwardly confident and laid-back attitude towards pretty much everything is driven largely by an insecurity that is masked by his constant reliance on alcohol; he drinks at school, at work and everywhere in between. The film opens with Sutter being dumped by his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) and the way in which this is handled by all concerned is particularly impressive. Cassidy tells Sutter that, whilst she still loves him, it is his lack of ambition that has forced her hand. Their subsequent attempt to remain as friends smacks of the awkwardness that such an undertaking would entail. In fact, Cassidy’s concerns about Stutter’s lack of direction are echoed by his teacher (Andre Royo) and his employer Dan (Bob Obenkirk), both of whom take on a somewhat paternal, but never preachy, role in Teller’s life in the absence of a father who abandoned him many years earlier.
The morning after a particularly heavy night of drinking, Sutter meets the delightful Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) and a friendship develops that eventually morphs into something more. Following her fine performance in The Descendants, Woodley is superb once again as a girl who deals with the ups and downs of her first ever romance with a pragmatism and maturity that we rarely see in teen film narratives. Aimee is attractive and intelligent and ultimately proves to be exactly what Sutter needs, even if it takes him a while to realise it. Our initial impressions of Sutter change somewhat as he introduces Aimee to his friends without any of the macho posturing or faux embarrassment that would typically accompany such a scenario. As their friendship develops into a romance, Sutter is forced to reconsider his post-school trajectory when Aimee is accepted into university.
This relationship eschews the clichés of teenage behaviours that dominate so many films. In fact, their relationship is not one borne of lust, but a love that develops because they simply enjoy each other’s company and feel comfortable together. Even the inevitable moment when they have sex – Aimee for the first time – sees our characters handle it very matter-of-factly, while Ponsoldt never resorts to salaciousness in his coverage of the scene. Woodley is just so good as Aimee, the type of teenager that I think most parents would like their own daughters to become. Even the supporting roles are strong with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter’s sister, Holly, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as their hard working mother, Sara. Meanwhile, Kyle Chandler plays against type as their deadbeat dad Tommy, the reality of whom is nothing like the image that Sutter has envisaged for so long.
This is a rare film about high school students in which the characters look, sound and behave like real teenagers. They are not perfect, nor are they the raucous sex-obsessed, out-of-control ne’er-do-wells that we are too often bombarded with in screen depictions of youth culture. The Spectacular Now delves beyond the surface of the characters to examine – in a subtle and unobtrusive manner – how circumstances, events and the actions of others can shape the lives of teenagers and influence the decisions they make. Ponsoldt has taken full advantage of the talent around him – both on and off the screen – to craft a highly affecting coming-of-age story with recognisable and believable characters that is one of the best teen dramas produced for quite some time. I can’t help but think that John Hughes would approve.