The situation is very familiar. A cool guy in high school meets a wallflower and discovers that she’s more interesting than he expected. Their relationship helps him to gain confidence and grow into something more. This description would apply to James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, yet it hardly does justice to the movie. There are no cruel bets, vicious cliques, or cool kids that reject their friend when he strays from the fold. These are three-dimensional characters that make mistakes and say the wrong thing, yet they’re trying their best. Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is the type of person who has an easy time interacting with anyone. He walks into a party and makes anyone feel important. This engaging personality can lead to good things, but it also masks uncertainty about his future. He’s living in the now and doesn’t see the reason to prepare for the future. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) recognizes it and dumps him, and she gives an honest assessment of why it won’t work. It’s this type of believable moment that lifts this movie above your standard teen drama.
The film’s key relationship involves Sutter and Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a smart and quiet girl who stays in the background. It’s clear from their first meeting that there are more similarities between the pair than you’d expect. There’s that easy chemistry that you can’t fake during their first ride on her paper route. While their relationship grows, it helps Aimee to come out of her shell, but there are hints that Sutter might be dragging her down. He’s constantly drinking alcohol, and those tendencies are growing in her life. It’s positive for Aimee to let loose and enjoy life more, but there are consequences if it goes too far. They also bond over tricky relationships with their moms, who both are single for very different reasons. Having common ground brings them even closer, but it won’t be an easy road.
The challenge to connect with this movie is Sutter, who has a limited view on his own abilities. His geometry teacher Mr. Aster (The Wire’s Andre Royo) tries to help him, but there’s little he can do with a guy who doesn’t believe in himself. There’s no sense that finding the right approach will change the game, and that’s a positive for this film. Sutter isn’t dumb but lacks the drive to bear down and work. A trip to see his estranged father (Kyle Chandler) could offer a solution, but it brings the opposite result. This sequence reveals the issues with Sutter and puts them in a grown man. His dad cares about no one and is more concerned with hanging out at the bar than his own son. While the similarities are a bit too obvious, there’s a real sadness in seeing them play out in such a blatant way. Chandler acts against type as a loser who’s just drifting through life until the next drink.
The best aspects of The Spectacular Now cover Sutter and Aimee’s relationship, and the main reason is Shailene Woodley. She could easily play the cool kid yet finds just the right approach for the likable girl. Aimee speaks so quietly that you can barely hear her, and her blind spot about Sutter is disheartening. You can’t change a guy who isn’t ready to see the truth. The story becomes a bit less interesting when she takes a back seat to his soul-searching. Miles Teller is game for anything and brings a lot more than what’s on the page for Sutter. He drives through some clumsy dialogue because the emotional authenticity is always there. It’s that genuine feeling that helps the story to overcome an uneven final act.
There’s a great moment when Cassidy’s new boyfriend Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) confronts Sutter, and the situation may get ugly. Instead, the more wooden guy asks for advice on letting loose. It’s a surprising turn for a set-up that we’ve seen in so many films. Bob Odenkirk and Mary Elizabeth Winstead also do solid work as Sutter’s boss and sister, respectively. They only get a few chances to shine yet make an impression. The Georgia setting feels believable for the middle-class characters, and that brings a laid-back atmosphere to their lives. There’s little melodrama beyond their day-to-day choices, though one glaring exception feels unnecessary. Putting Aimee in physical jeopardy sidetracks the momentum, but only for a short while. This is a character-driven story that avoids the traps and stays on track despite a few hurdles. Aimee’s look in the last shot says it all and ends the movie on an uncertain, yet understandable note. Life is just getting rolling for the couple, though questions remain on if they’re heading in the same direction.
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