‘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.

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