THE SPECTACULAR NOW (R) It begins like so many other American teen-oriented movies: bold, brash and blustering with arrogance and cool. Popular high school student Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) lays it all out for us in his opening monologue, explaining that he’s top dog of his youthful fiefdom. Sutter is charming, he has an attractive girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson) and he’s a blast to be around because of his impulsive, warm, drunken, clownish behavior. Everyone loves Sutter Keely. He’s confident in the way so many young people want to be at that age. In Sutter’s mind, he’s Tom Cruise from Risky Business or John Cusack from Say Anything. Girls take to him easily, and guys want to be just like him.
However, once the opening title fades away and the music lowers to natural sounds, director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer) shift gears away from Hollywood clichés and instead offer up something rare in movies like this. They get real.
After recounting his wild good life, which may be exaggerated, because Sutter is an unreliable narrator if ever there was one, Sutter wakes up early one morning hung over on a stranger’s lawn. His girlfriend has left him, and his aimless, carefree approach to life is showing some wear and tear. A shy, serious, fellow student—Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley)—non-judgmentally helps him out, and eventually the two become romantically involved. As their relationship deepens and becomes more problematic, Sutter starts to show a surprising amount of depth and sensitivity. But when Sutter seeks out his father (Kyle Chandler), who abandoned his family responsibilities years ago, the young man is confronted with his possible future self and is forced to deal with the consequences of living only in “the spectacular now.”
What’s immediately apparent in The Spectacular Now is just how commanding and engaging Teller is as a leading man. The young actor is a star, but Woodley quietly steals many of the scenes. She’s also a star, and Woodley grounds the movie with her intelligence and insightfully downplayed approach. Aimee is one of the most realistic teen characters we’ve seen in a long time.
Ponsoldt approaches the material and his characters with tenderness, humor and dignity. There’s greatness in this overall modest movie. It’s the type of film that’s difficult not to fall in love with, and that’s a rare and beautiful gift to viewers.
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