The first few seconds of “The Spectacular Now” give you a clear sense of its tone and direction. A high school senior named Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is sitting at his computer, preparing to write an essay for his college application. He reads the topic: “a hardship you have faced.” Before he proceeds any further, he reaches over and takes a sip of his beer.
A lot of high school students drink in movies, but it’s usually handled in one of two ways. Either there are no particular consequences for it — just a “no big deal” kind of thing that some kids happen to indulge in while others don’t — or else the movie is a hand-wringing melodrama about underage drinking. “The Spectacular Now,” an authentic and charming teen-oriented drama based on a novel by Tim Tharp, is the rare film that falls somewhere in between. Sutter’s drinking is definitely a problem, and not just because of his age. He drinks too much for an adult, too. But instead of being the focus of the movie, it’s portrayed as a symptom of Sutter’s larger issues: his refusal to face the fact of his impending adulthood, and his reluctance to do anything other than have fun and live in the moment.
Sound familiar? Like the best teen dramas, this one has characters with traits we all recognize from our own high school years, either in ourselves or our friends. A standout from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film was directed by James Ponsoldt (whose last film, “Smashed,” actually was about alcoholism), with a screenplay adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the duo whose “500 Days of Summer” also captured certain elements of young adulthood with painful, poignant, and occasionally hilarious accuracy.
The story commences with Sutter’s girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), dumping him over something that’s relatively minor but that we sense is just the latest in a series of disappointments. They had a lot of fun, and they’re popular in school, but apart from drinking and having sex, they never really worked as a couple. Reeling from the break-up, Sutter gets drunk at a party and wakes up the next morning on someone’s lawn. That someone is Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a classmate of lesser social standing who gets Sutter on his feet and enlists his help with her paper route.
He takes an interest in her, not romantically at first, but as a pal. Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, he seems to find her innocence and semi-nerdiness refreshing. She’s sweet and unaffected. When their relationship starts evolving into romance — endearingly, hesitantly conveyed in an outdoor scene shot mostly in a single take — Sutter’s friend Ricky (Masam Holden) cautions him that Aimee will surely take it much more seriously than Sutter will, and that he risks breaking her heart.
Since this is a coming-of-age story, you can be assured that there will be some heartbreaks and other angst as Sutter and Aimee stumble toward adulthood, both helping and hindering one another. She picks up his drinking habits, the way meek, lovestruck teens often do. But when Aimee feels obligated to skip college and stay home to help her unstable mother, Sutter encourages her to stand up for herself. For her part, she encourages him to seek out his father (Kyle Chandler), who left him and his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) ten years ago and never looked back. Once they get past all the ways that Sutter is a bad influence on Aimee, they may actually be good for each other.
These two central performances by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are key. Teller played a broader, more abrasive version of the same type of character in the raunchy comedy “21 & Over”; here, though, he finds the kernel of realism that makes us sympathize with Sutter and root for his success. You can see why Sutter’s classmates love being around him but don’t respect him. He’s a fun guy, a people person — a douchebag, maybe, but never a bully. In his part-time job at a men’s clothing store (where his boss, played by Bob Odenkirk, is something of a father figure), he’s all the customers’ favorite. Woodley, from “The Descendants” and TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” has an aura of kindness about her, a vulnerability that makes her a perfect counterpart for Teller’s cockiness.
The story may be formulaic, hitting the same emotional beats as countless other teen dramas, and there’s a cheap trick two-thirds of the way through that manipulates more feeling out of us than is deserved. Yet there’s so much tender, relatable emotion in these characters and their experiences, and so much underlying goodness in them. Spectacular it may not be, but it’s pretty damn good.
B (1 hr., 35 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.