When you inventory the movies that attempt to take teenagers and their emotions seriously, you realize how dreadfully short that list really is. It’s not that films like The Way Way Back or Easy A don’t try, but it says something about their approach that, 24 years after its release, Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything still remains the cinematic high mark for exploring adolescent angst without condescension.
Lately, teenagers have mostly been depicted as raucously horny cartoons, given to outrageous stunts and potty-mouthed witticisms. Project X, 21 and Over and the gender-balancing To Do List are more about rude laughs than meaningful character development. It’s why last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and, now, The Spectacular Now are such welcome additions to the genre. While neither is quite good enough to knock Crowe’s minor masterpiece off its perch, they can sit comfortably at its side.
Based on a novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now introduces us to Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a popular high-school senior and class clown. Smart, confident and underachieving, he believes he has everything he could ever need: a car, a job and a fake ID. He gets along with almost everyone but doesn’t seem to have any plans for the future. Instead he likes to drink. Constantly. And before long we begin to realize that the flask he carries around isn’t a hip affection of adulthood but rather a warning sign of the man he may become.
After a hard night of partying, Sutter wakes on the front lawn of brainy wallflower Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), who reads manga comics and drives her drunken mom’s morning paper route. Recognizing that there’s more to Aimee than meets the eye, he starts working his charms on her. It doesn’t take long for the pretty, shy girl to become smitten, losing sight of her own best interests. And though Sutter still pines for his ex-girlfriend, he finds himself caring more and more for Aimee – eventually understanding that he’s standing in her way.
On its surface The Spectacular Now has many of the hallmarks of your typical high-school dramedy. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who worked together on (500) Days of Summer, understand the romantic psyche of teens, letting their behaviors and interactions express who they are. There are some sappy, formulaic missteps along the way, particularly in the film’s final third, which sends Sutter in search of his deadbeat dad (Kyle Chandler), but director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) and his cast dig beneath the story’s surface to reveal their characters’ fears and insecurities.
Neither Teller nor Woodley (who was so good as George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendants) is Hollywood-glamorous, but both have talent and charisma to spare. Together they find a convincing and exquisite intimacy that skips many of the standard-issue coming-of-age tropes and instead focuses on complex self-acceptance.
From their delicate first kiss to the first time they have sex, the actors navigate their characters’ emotions, rationalizations and disappointments with such unbearable authenticity that you can’t help but worry about them long after leaving the theater. Though it sometimes struggles to keep its soapier instincts at bay, The Spectacular Now is such an honest and poignant portrait of teen romance that it makes for a memorable night of summer love ... and heartbreak.
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