By Dan Metcalf, Jr.
Clipper Film Correspondent
The Spectacular Now (A24)
Rated R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality - all involving teens.
Starring Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Masam Holden, Dayo Okeniyi, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicci Faires, Ava London, Whitney Goin, Andre Royo, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Levi Miller.
Directed by James Ponsoldt.
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by Tim Tharp.
Teen alcoholism just isn't supposed be funny. Miles Teller, who plays the lead role of Sutter in The Spectacular Now seemed focused on saying otherwise in his film career prior to its release. Teller has starred in two “party films” over the past year (Project X, 21 and Over), playing drunken idiots who personify all the benefits of substance abuse and alcoholism. Maybe it's just a simple case of typecasting, or perhaps that's why he was perfect for Sutter, a young man who learns some hard lessons about life, family and love in The Spectacular Now.
Sutter has it all going into his senior year at a small-town Georgia high school: The hottest girlfriend, the adoration of the student body and big plans for more parties. His world collapses when his girlfriend (Brie Larson) dumps him, because graduation is coming up, and he is unable to take things seriously. In a funk, Sutter meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a poor nerd and social outast who finds him lying on a lawn (after an all-night bender) where she delivers newspapers to support her widowed mother and siblings. Despite coming from opposite sides of the high school social spectrum, Sutter and Aimee form a friendship that blossoms into love. Sutter also introduces Aimee into the world of alcohol, which helps the couple in their bonding – at first.
Sutter introduces Aimee to his sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Sutter meets Aimee's family, but their relationship shows signs of trouble, mostly due to Sutter's dependence on alcohol, and his desire to reunite with his estranged, alcoholic father (Kyle Chandler), a man his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has tried to shield from him since leaving the family years before.
As graduation approaches, Aimee tries to help Sutter out of his funk, while Sutter re-examines what's really important in life.
The Spectacular Now is a surprising film considering the knee-jerk switch in tone for Miles Teller, who delivers a great dramatic performance. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, knowing The Spectacular Now was co-written by Scott Neustadter, who penned 2009's 500 Days of Summer (an equally brilliant film), and directed by James Ponsoldt, who also directed 2012's Smashed (another overlooked cinematic gem dealing with alcoholism – starring Winstead in a fantastic performance). That's a pretty good pedigree for The Spectacular Now, and I hope audiences give it a chance.
If there's one minor flaw to The Spectacular Now, it's the casting of Woodley as a nerdy outcast. I'm not knocking her performance; she's obviously talented and deserves any and all accolades for her portrayal of Aimee. It's just that her apparent beauty does not make her wallflower material. Filmmakers often think they can “nerd-out” any attractive person with a little geeky wardrobe, glasses and a dull hairdo.
Even with a little knit picking, The Spectacular Now is a great film with an understated and beautiful message about taking control of one's life, especially at a young age.