As alcoholism dramas go, last week’s offering, The World’s End, is a hard act to follow. If The Spectacular Now isn’t as powerful or as funny, this brilliantly acted film is still the best teen flick I’ve seen all year, and like many of the best teen movies, it hurts real bad.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a high-school senior who’s partying his way through life, barely knocked off stride when his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) leaves him. He thinks he can charm his way out of any situation, and he’s almost right. When Cassidy’s new boyfriend (Dayo Okeniyi) thinks that Sutter is trying to rekindle the old flame and comes up ready to punch him, Sutter not only talks the guy down but sends him away feeling better about himself. Too much of Sutter’s charm comes from his nonstop consumption of alcohol, but when scholastic achiever and anime fan Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) finds him passed out on somebody’s lawn as she’s running her paper route, the romance that blossoms forces him to ponder a course correction in his life.
If you read the skillful novel by Tim Tharp that this movie is based on, you may recall that a scene from the book takes place in Fort Worth. The filmmakers here have rendered the setting indeterminate (the movie was filmed in Georgia), which may disappoint or relieve you. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the writing team who penned (500) Days of Summer, take their cue from Tharp’s novel and tell the story from Sutter’s point of view. They come up with a clever bit, leaving off his first date with Aimee at their first kiss, with the rest of the day shown in a hung-over flashback, as Sutter’s memory comes back to him in pieces. I wish we’d been shown more of Aimee’s troubled family life. It would have been good to see her finally standing up to the mother who’s been trying to keep her out of college or indeed to see her mother at all.
This movie is directed by James Ponsoldt, who burst onto the scene last year with his superb AA drama Smashed. He expertly steers a tricky scene when Aimee appalls a dinner party by revealing where her father is. (Between this and The Descendants, Woodley does really well with lengthy monologues.) He also demonstrates a secure handle on the patterns of addictive behavior that color Sutter and his relationships.
Ponsoldt knows his drunks, but he’s even better at handling his actors. The curly-haired, dimpled-chinned Teller often gets cast as good-time guys (in 21 and Over and the Footloose remake) because he always seems to look stoned. Nevertheless, he can do more than play the guy who brings the keg to the party. This role is well-nigh perfect for him, as Sutter initially woos the virginal Aimee out of pity but then realizes that he’s unlikely to find a better girl to fall for him. (Of course, it helps immensely that after he introduces her to alcohol, she takes to it avidly.) The interplay between Teller and Woodley is matchless — you believe that this unlikely couple would spark.
Teller works just as well with the actors. Larson is indelible in a scene midway through, in which a weeping but resolute Cassidy, clearly still in love with Sutter, tells him that she needs someone with a future. (Sutter is the first to agree that he’s not that guy.) The conversation between Sutter and his trophy-wife older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a great tense encounter, as Sutter tries to find the whereabouts of his absent father, which his family has kept from him. Sutter eventually finds his dad (Kyle Chandler), and from his first appearance you just know that the whole meeting is going to end in disaster. Any of these scenes would be the dramatic highlight of a lesser movie. The fact that they’re all here testifies to the strength of this ensemble and its director, and as Sutter confronts the ways in which he uses liquor to shut out people who care about him, they give The Spectacular Now its slowly accumulating power.
The Spectacular Now
Starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on Tim Tharp’s novel. Rated R.