Spectacular Now, The (United States, 2013)August 02, 2013
Potential Spoilers: I reveal a little more about the plot than I normally do in reviews, primarily because I want to discuss the way the film progresses during its second half. There are no big "reveals" in the review - it's not the kind of movie that features twists, anyway - but those who want to avoid plot details may wish to return after having seen the film.
One of the criteria I use assess the lasting power of a movie is whether the characters stay with me after I leave the theater. With many films, even those I recommend or classify as "good," that's not the case. With The Spectacular Now, it is. The two leads, Miles Teller's Sutter Keely and Shailene Woodley's Aimee Finicky are so well drawn and believably portrayed that it's impossible not to accept them as real. Their tribulations don't feel like something lifted off the page of a movie script. In addition to Teller and Woodley, credit for this goes to director James Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, who may be on their way to a second indie success. (Their first one being 500 Days of Summer.)
The Spectacular Now's DNA contains elements of the John Hughes teen dramadies of the '80s. There's also a little Cameron Crowe - in fact, replace the soundtrack with something more dynamic and it might be easy to mistake this with a Crowe film. The first two-thirds are fairly light as they navigate the familiar pathway of a high school relationship that develops between two unlikely opposites. But The Spectacular Now doesn't opt for the cheap payoff. Instead, the final half-hour plunges into territory that's darker and more serious than what we get in most movies of this sort. The transition from teen romantic comedy to dual coming of age story is, for the most part, handled smoothly. We don't feel like we have been jerked out of one movie and plopped into another. The consistency of the characters is a key reason for this. The cracks that expand into fissures have been there all along.
Sutter Keely is a popular 18-year old who approaches high school graduation like he's been repeatedly listening to "Glory Days." When an adult asks him about his plans for the future, he says he thinks growing up is overrated then turns the table on the teacher by asking him if he's happy. Sutter's unwillingness to face the future becomes the irreconcilable difference in his relationship with Cassidy (Brie Larson), who quickly transitions from girlfriend to ex-girlfriend. As funny and clever as he can be, there's something broken deep within Sutter. His relationship with his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is strained. There's not much of an emotional bond between him and his sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And his father (Kyle Chandler) has been out of the picture for half his life.
He meets Aimee when she discovers him lying on a lawn one morning while she's doing her paper route. He's not sure how he got there - he has a tendency to drink too much and the night before was a case in point. With little else to do, Sutter decides to accompany Aimee on the rest of her route. She's thrilled to have the company of a popular guy - something unusual for a wallflower like her. Despite his protestations to his friends that it's just platonic, his relationship with Aimee grows increasingly amorous. They challenge one another and discover a surprising and unexpected compatibility. Then Sutter learns his father's whereabouts. He invites Aimee to go with him on a road trip and that's when everything changes - both in terms of the movie's predictability and its tone.
What The Spectacular Now accomplishes in its final 30 minutes cannot be overstated. Since the movie is told from Sutter's perspective, it's perhaps not surprising that we gain a new and deeper understanding of his character as a result of his encounter with his father and the aftermath. The movie, however, provides an equally vivid portrait of Aimee as events - some of them seemingly harsh - reforge her in the kiln of late adolescence. The final scene, which I won't reveal here, may be seen by some as abrupt and unsatisfying, but if you think about where the characters are in that moment, the paths they have taken to get to that point, and the way the actors play the scene, there's no cliffhanger. The situation is obvious. We know how the next scene would play out if there was another one before the end credits.
The Spectacular Now is perfectly cast. Miles Teller channels equal parts John Cusack and Patrick Dempsey in his portrayal of a likeable goof whose charm starts to wear thin once you get to know him. Shailene Woodley, best known for The Secret Life of the American Teenager and possibly destined to become Mary Jane Watson at some point in the future, is credible as the shy, nerdy girl who blossoms because of Sutter's friendship. And this isn't the case of a Hollywood romantic comedy makeover - the transformation is believable. Aimee dresses better, takes more care with her hair, and applies a little makeup, but she doesn't go from ugly duckling to supermodel. Effective support is provided by Brie Larson, whose role as Sutter's ex doesn't fit into the usual "romantic complications" category, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler as the mom and dad whose parental style is critical to understanding Sutter's personality.
The Spectacular Now is something many movies about teenagers aren't: smart. It treats the characters and audience with respect. It doesn't resort to dumb humor and bathroom jokes to enliven the proceedings. The sex scene is tasteful but gets the point(s) across. The movie's initial structure is familiar enough to establish a layer of comfort that falls away once we realize that we're headed for a deeper, richer experience than the usual boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-back. Through August, 2013 has been characterized by big budget disappointments and under-the-radar surprises. The Spectacular Now is one of the most remarkable entries into the latter category.
Spectacular Now, The (United States, 2013)
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler
Screenplay: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by Tim Tharp
Cinematography: Jess Hall
Music: Rob Simonsen
U.S. Distributor: A24