‘The Spectacular Now’ Review: Honest Performances and Serious Subject Matter Elevated Beyond Standard High School Fare
Editor’s note: Allison’s review of The Spectacular Now originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re posting it again as the film opens this week in limited release.
There are two kinds of people who go to high school: those who love every second of it, and those who cannot wait to get out. In The Spectacular Now, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a charming screw-up who falls in the first group, but he is also acutely aware that this is the best time of his life. And he is living that life to the fullest, embracing and living in every moment, but unfortunately doing so with a super-size booze-filled slurpee clutched in his grasp at every turn.
When he sits down to start writing his college essay (pulling on a PBR as he does), he uses the question about the biggest hardship he has had to overcome to unload about his recent break up. After yet another party and another night getting loaded, Sutter finds himself waking up on the lawn of Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a pretty girl from his school that he has never quite noticed before because she does not have a specific “thing” that defines her from the pack.
Aimee is taken by Sutter, who has an undeniable and easy charm, but instead of becoming a typical good-girl-falls-for-bad-boy story, director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) dives into their relationship deeper, showing their conversations and how a connection slowly but surely develops between them. The film is at it’s best during these moments, played with honesty and relatability by Teller and Woodley.
The two bond over their troubled relationships with their mothers – Aimee is scared to tell her co-dependent mom that she wants to go away for college and Sutter is scared to ask his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to give him his father’s phone number (something Sutter is fixated on getting and something no one in his family wants him to have). When Sutter instead turns to his sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to get him in contact with their father, the laid back, carefree lifestyle Sutter has created for himself suddenly comes to a screeching halt.
Seeing Sutter with his dad (Kyle Chandler – a very different performance from the usually lovable actor) makes the roots of Sutter’s actions and certain facets of his personality clear, and while it is slightly endearing at first, it quickly becomes upsetting to see the road Sutter may have inadvertently sent himself down. “Stuck in neutral,” as his boss (Bob Odenkirk) calls him, Sutter finally comes to terms with the way he has been living his life and for the first time really starts to look at his future and what he wants it to look like.
Pondsolt does not shy away from showing the more damaged sides of his characters, regardless of their age. But it is disappointing that this character development is not further explored outside of a one-off line from Sutter’s ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), asking of Aimiee, “Have you turned her into a lush yet?” One could argue that Sutter uses his drinking to numb his true feelings and emotions, and that is certainly true, but when his boss asks him point blank to promise he will stop drinking in order to keep his job Sutter truthfully admits that he could not make a promise like that. There is a depth Teller brings to this potential problem that is, unfortunately, never fully explored. But the honest way all the actors approach their relationships with one another make The Spectacular Now not only a good time but a story worth viewing.
The Upside: Breakout performances by both Teller and Woodley; a wonderful soundtrack that encapsulates this particularly youthful time of one’s life; Pondsolt yet again proves he is able to tackle heavy subject matter with heart and humor.
The Downside: The narrative works to highlight a possibly serious drinking problem Sutter has developed (and potentially passed on to Aimee) but then abandons it once their relationship begins to get complicated.
On the Side: Winstead starred as the lead (with a drinking problem all her own) in Pondolt’s previous feature, Smashed, which premiered at Sundance last year.