Young stars shine in fresh, cliche-averse coming-of-age story
Starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley
Directed by James Ponsoldt
R, 95 min.
Released Aug. 2, 2013
Coming-of-age movies often smack into a column of clichés. But this vibrantly fresh tale, about two high school seniors and what happens when their very different lives intersect, waltzes around them all.
Sutter (Miles Teller) is the carefree life of the party, a glib charmer whose fast-food big-gulp cup barely conceals his secret: He’s been spiking his soda with splashes from a whiskey flask for years. At 18, he’s already well on the road to being an alcoholic.
Sutter’s mantra: Forget the past, and don’t worry about what’s around the corner. “Live in the moment,” he says. Relish the spectacular now.
Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is Sutter’s total opposite: shy, studious, hardworking, always looking ahead, dreaming of tomorrow.
They meet when Sutter wakes up early one morning after a night of extreme partying following a devastating breakup with his girlfriend (Brie Larson). He finds himself sprawled out on a stranger’s front yard, somehow separated from his car. He doesn’t know where he is or how he got there, but he opens his eyes to see Aimee, brushing the hair out of her face, bending over him and asking if he’s OK.
So begins their story, as director James Ponsoldt delicately, tenderly brings these two characters together. The camera hovers around them, lingering, observing as they talk, walk, laugh and get to know each other, slowly becoming more intimate.
They have lunch in the school cafeteria. He asks her to tutor him in geometry, a class he’s in danger of failing, and invites her to a party. In a slow stroll down a wooded pathway, Aimee confesses she’s never had a boyfriend; Sutter, dumfounded, tells her she’s beautiful. He kisses her.
And then he asks her to the prom.
Is he falling in love? Why does he still have feelings for his old girlfriend? Is he only using Aimee, in his “now,” as her wary friends think?
The seemingly simple story has deeper, more complex, more troubling dimensions, too. Both Aimee and Sutter grew up without their fathers; Aimee’s died when she was a child; Sutter’s divorced mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has kept him from having any contact with his. Sutter rebels against her control. But when he finally tracks down his long-estranged father (Kyle Chandler), he understands, and his visit becomes a depressing gaze into what might very well be his own dismal future.
The Spectacular Now started out as a film festival hit and is now making its way into the movie mainstream. If it’s not in your local theater yet, it’s well worth the effort to seek it out.
Based on novelist Tim Tharp’s 2008 young-adult-lit National Book Award finalist, the movie feels more real than fictional, including how it doesn’t conform to the way you might expect a typical young-love story to tie itself into a neat, sweet romantic bow. But the book’s ending does get tweaked with a softer, more ambiguous, and possibly more hopeful pinch of positive.
And Woodley and Teller are amazing: so natural, so relaxed, so at ease in their roles, it’s easy to forget they’re actors playing characters who aren’t really them. Woodley got raves starring with George Clooney in The Descendants, and you might remember Teller from his sidekick role in the remake of Footloose.
They’ll show up together again next year in another movie (a Hunger Games knockoff called Divergent). It may be a big hit, but I’m going to find it hard to forget the lasting impression they made in this bittersweet, unassuming little summer gem, a movie that’s “spectacular” in own simple way.
—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine