‘The Spectacular Now’: unmissable, unforgetable

The Spectacular Now, adapted for the silver screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — the duo behind (500) Days of Summer — from a young adult novel of the same name, is nothing short of its titular superlative.

It’s the story of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a high school senior with a drinking habit and an absentee father (the two are entwined in more ways than one), and an attitude that epitomizes the Millennial Zeitgeist: he only cares about the moment he’s in and chasing the one to follow. He makes friends like he breathes, without effort, and plays matchmaker for his buddy Ricky, but he’s not without relationship issues.

Sutter’s girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson, of 21 Jump Street) dumps him because she can sense he’s a dead-end, an act that hurtles Sutter into a drunken tailspin, crash landing him on a stranger’s lawn in an unfamiliar neighborhood, blocks away from his abandoned car and miles away from home.

He wakes to find Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a bookish but comely girl, standing over him. Sutter offers to help her with her morning paper route in exchange for a ride back to his car, wherever that might be. And thus their somewhat cliched, party-boy/unpopular-girl relationship begins. Except it’s not what you think. (Well, maybe a little.)

Sure, they learn from one another — for Aimee that means not letting those she loves walk all over her, Sutter included; and for Sutter that means dispensing with his bumper-sticker philosophy (“serious about not being serious”) — but Sutter only makes a pass at Aimee after Cassidy’s made it clear she’s moved on, and he only kisses Aimee after she takes a pull off his trusty flask and shouts some expletives. The rest unfolds mostly unpredictably: a jealousy-laced trip to the prom, an eye-opening encounter with Sutter’s estranged dad (Kyle Chandler), and a promise made by Sutter for all the wrong reasons then broken for all the right ones. Not to mention an open-ended conclusion that lingers in your mind long after the credits roll.

Deftly directed by James Ponsoldt (who’s apparently fascinated by alcoholism), and vibrantly photographed by Jess Hall, The Spectacular Now deserves as much praise for its craft as well its defiance of formula. Two single-shot, long takes comprise two of the most memorable scenes (the couple’s first kiss and their first — ahem – sleepover), and the performances by Teller and Woodley are magnificent, their chemistry undeniable.

Despite occasionally almost veering into douchebaggery, Teller’s Sutter is equal measures affable, charming and empathetic, like a young, booze-swigging John Cusack during his Say Anything… days. But it is Woodley who’s the more memorable star — if only slightly.

She climbs inside the skin of her character, projecting a self-effacing intelligence and beauty that’s remarkably genuine, and a naive, saucer-eyed hopefulness that everything will work out for her in the end, to poignant effect.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mary Elizabeth Winstead likewise excel in small but important roles as Sutter’s mother and sister, respectively.

The Spectacular Now, like the novel upon which it’s based, is a startlingly tender, wholly authentic coming-of-age story about gaining perspective, learning to take the time to truly appreciate the few watershed teen moments there are (and all who make them possible and worthwhile), and the rarity and uncertainty of second chances.

Don’t miss your first chance to see it.

Waiting

“You sure you know what you’re doing?” Robyn said.

No, Will thought, as he tried again to pry open the condom package, though not for lack of research. He knew how to put it on; it was a simple matter of pinching the latex between his fingers and rolling it out. He’d practiced his technique earlier that night – on bananas, in the unassuming familiarity of his own bathroom – but here it was different. The glare from the fluorescent bulbs seemed to lay bare every blemish and imperfection on his skin, and he couldn’t force the easy-tear corners to peel. He knew he had to open it slowly, so as not to damage the latex, and he even knew how to tie the slippery thing in a knot when it all was over. He’d practiced that, too, but the reflective blue plastic wouldn’t budge.

He rifled through the drawers beneath Robyn’s bathroom counter. He found some silver tweezers with flat tips, like tongs, and used them to pinch one corner of the package while he tugged on the plastic with his other hand. The polymer cover didn’t give. They’d been together, he and Robyn, for just over seven months and they had the talk about tonight a few weeks ago, after her parents announced their vacation plans. That was around the same time they avowed their love to one another. (She said it first.)

After replacing the tweezers, Will pulled on the bottom corner of a small mirror to his right and it swung open to reveal a medicine cabinet. He raked his eyes along the shelves until he spotted a translucent bottle of isopropyl alcohol. He wondered if he could use it to melt away the plastic that sheathed the condom. He knew it burned, or at least it felt like it burned whenever his mom used it to disinfect the raspberries on his legs — the fruit-sized lacerations born of gravelly slides on the infield dirt.

He snatched a small hand towel off a plastic rod attached to the wall behind him and poured some of the mint-scented liquid into it. He rubbed the towel over the package for an interval but, once he stopped, he realized he hadn’t done anything to the wrapper except smear some of the lettering.

He tossed the package onto the pristine-white countertop. They were in the basement of Robyn’s parents’ house. That’s where her room was, in all its vibrant splendor. Robyn, dressed in a lacy, cream-colored camisole and matching underwear, rested atop her violet bedspread, surrounded by peach colored walls and a green dresser in one corner. She was waiting for him, ready for him, and separated from him by only a half-turn of the doorknob. Will engaged the lock. He braced his hands on the counter and leaned over the sink.

For an instant he thought about telling her the truth. But then he thought that seventeen years was long enough to wait and he frantically tried the package again. It was the last night before Robyn’s parents returned home from their week-long cruise, his last chance, for a while, to go through with it. And for that the condom was necessary. It was Robyn’s idea, her lone stipulation really, so there would be no moving forward without it. Still, the package rebuffed him.

Will decided to tell her that the condom had expired or that he had pulled too hard on the wrapper and tore the whole thing in half and that, he was sorry, but they’d have to find some other, better time. What a story that would be, his friends and teammates would torment him mercilessly for it on Monday – Robyn’s too, probably. He steeled himself and opened the door. The lights along the top of the wall-length vanity momentarily blinded him as he stood before a hazy darkness.

“Robyn?” he said, shadowing his eyes with a forearm.

Then his pupils dilated and he saw that she was lying on her side, facing away from him. He watched her torso undulate in time with her breathing, called her name again quietly and walked over to the bed. He put a hand on her shoulder. His palm seemed scaly and cold against the heat of her skin. She mumbled something, rolled to face him, and he noticed she was asleep; her eyes closed and her lips parted and her arms tucked childishly against her chest, hands cushioning her cheek, her blonde hair unfurled on the pillow.

Will slid in beside her, set an alarm to wake him before Robyn’s parents arrived, as instructed, and drew the sheet up to cover her bare legs.

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