If The Spectacular Now had been about its strongest character, it might have really been something. Shailene Woodley gives a performance of such fragility and power that the rest of the movie feels dull by comparison. Without her, scenes are routine. With her, there’s a hint of magic.
Director James Ponsoldt has adapted Tim Tharp’s coming-of-age novel with heartfelt sincerity, but the movie lacks a cutting bite to push it past innocuous teenage drama to a truly deep portrait of adolescence. The movie is not without its affecting moments—enthusiastic crowds cheered it at the Sundance Film Festival—but it never capitalizes on its promise.
Miles Teller stars as Sutter, a high school senior who loves good times and social interaction, but has little care for classwork or future planning. Think Ferris Bueller with concealed depression and an alcohol abuse problem. After his ideal, popular girlfriend dumps him, Sutter vows revenge by the only means he knows: drinking a lot and partying like crazy.
When a shy, smart outcast, Aimee (Woodley), finds Sutter passed out on a random front lawn one morning, he befriends her. He operates under the pretense that he can help her by showing her what it’s like to have a boyfriend. They soon form a deep connection that Sutter doesn’t feel he deserves.
If The Descendants didn’t already prove Woodley is a force to be reckoned with, The Spectacular Now certainly does. Woodley embodies young love’s innocence, hope and fragility. She dominates every frame she’s in with sweet hesitations and a nervous smile.
Ponsoldt clearly has a gift for getting the best out of his cast, having directed Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s superb performance in last year’s Smashed. (Winstead has a small role here, too, as Sutter’s older sister.) But while Woodley is magnetic, Teller’s performance is less convincing. The fun-loving personality that his classmates are supposed to embrace never shines as bright as it should.
Part of the problem is that The Spectacular Now shows little awareness of high school’s social dynamics. Exposition explains where the characters exist on the popular-to-nonentity spectrum—Sutter is a hip joker, Aimee is an ignored nerd—but there’s no exploration of how those statuses affect them. While bigger concepts might have shifted attention away from the relationship between the characters, without them we lose sight of how much everyday high school life affects kids’ perception of themselves and others. If the popularity of Sutter’s ex-girlfriend was so important to him, and Aimee is such a step down, it might be nice to explore the difference between the two. Occasionally, a friend shows up to make sure character traits are clearly spelled out, but none of the high schoolers beyond the two leads are very compelling.
However, the relationship is fascinating in how it serves each character in different ways. Sutter encourages Aimee to be more upfront about her feelings—and teaches her to drink while he’s at it. She shows him what it’s like to be loved unconditionally, whether or not he deserves it. Unfortunately, the screenplay, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer), grows more simplistic as the film progresses. While earlier scenes, such as Sutter asking Aimee to prom while he’s drunk off his ass, have an intriguing ambiguity to them, later ones lack nuance. Too much of Sutter’s problems are reduced to daddy issues, and his shifts in outlook are too easy.
Sadly, Aimee gets lost in the shuffle. It’s impossible not to want the best for this girl. But The Spectacular Now is Sutter’s story, and that was always going to be a tougher sell. There’s nothing wrong with an unlikable protagonist, but if that protagonist is supposed to have a magnetic personality, it helps if the audience isn’t longing to watch another character instead.
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Brie Larson
Release Date: Aug. 2, 2013