It’s rare to find a teen movie that actually treats teens like real people with real problems and real emotions. So often these films peddle juvenile humor and exaggerated stereotypes in place of stronger and meatier stories. That’s why it’s refreshing to find a movie like “The Spectacular Now”. This intelligent and nuanced coming-of-age story steers clear of cliches and gimmickry by respecting its characters and portraying their circumstances in a thoughtful and naturalistic way.
Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, a popular and hard-partying high school senior. He has a hot girlfriend, a great personality, and no real ambition for the future. Sutter tells several people he lives in the now, not worrying about anything other than the moment. But that attitude proves to be destructive – something he can’t see through his fog of hedonism. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) finally has enough and breaks up with him. He is warned by a concerned teacher that he may not have the grades to graduate. And his constant drinking becomes a growing concern. Sutter’s life “in the now” isn’t the happy, sunshiny place he projects. It’s just a facade to hide the truth of a troubled and conflicted life.
Sutter’s life takes an unexpected turn when he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She’s a shy and studious ‘good girl’ whose reserved lifestyle is in stark contrast to Sutter’s. The two opposites hit it off but it takes some time for their relationship to blossom. But several of Sutter’s issues get in the way – his ego, his ‘cool guy’ reputation, his fixation on old flame Cassidy, and his self-destructive behavior. We never really know how Sutter and Aimee’s relationship will turn out. The film doesn’t lay out a standard formulaic plot line and a big part of its success is the experience we have watching this authentic relationship play out.
The story is also helped by some nice performances by the two leads. Teller and Woodley have noticeably different acting styles yet they seem to gel nicely with these two characters. For Teller this film is wedged in between two run-of-the-mill raunchy comedies so I was pleasantly surprised at his work here. Woodley’s nice performance is no surprise. Her film debut in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” received rave reviews and here she delivers another eye-catching performance. The supporting work is also uniformly good. Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and especially Kyle Chandler each have some strong screen time.
One of the interesting things about “The Spectacular Now” is how it employs several familiar plot points, but it treats each of them with a fresh and prudent sincerity. There are moments where you can guess how certain things will play out, but the film also steadily surprised me by not going the conventional route. More importantly it is all grounded in a realistic portrayal of these two teenaged characters which separates this film from the bulk of teen pictures we get. That alone is something I welcomed with opened arms.