Strip away the makeup and the pretense, turn a few generic high school situations on their ear and an amazing thing can happen to a teen summer movie. Reality sets in, romance feels awkward, difficult and earned, and characters make the journey from amusingly familiar to moving.
“The Spectacular Now,” the James Ponsoldt film based on the Tim Tharp novel, is a light summer fling that turns serious. Witty, warm and wistful and in just the right proportions, “Spectacular” is the best-acted film of the summer.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller of “Project X” and “Rabbit Hole”) isn’t much to look at. He’s got more than the usual quota of teenage scars. But he has confidence, a bit of swagger and an undeniable charm. We meet him as he’s typing out an inappropriately candid college application essay, raving about “the best girlfriend” that he just lost, Cassidy (Brie Larson).
In quick strokes, we see that relationship — fun, laughter, sex. And in more strokes, we pick up on what draws people to Sutter — his heart, his wit and his access to alcohol.
But Cassidy ditched him, and Sutter is floating and flirting his way past that — slacking off in school, not making plans, emphasizing “the now.”
And then he wakes up after an all-night drunk to the sight of sweet, innocent Aimee. She’s delivering newspapers. She’s nice, so she’s utterly anonymous to Sutter. She’s never had a boyfriend. When he turns on the charm, we instantly worry for her.
The fact that Aimee is played by the peerless Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) turns this light slice-of-high-school-life tale into something more serious, a movie with weight and consequences.
To him, he’s just “trying to help this girl out.” But we wonder if Aimee will be “the one to yank (Sutter) out of neutral” or if he’ll break her heart.
Ponsoldt directed “Off the Black” with Nick Nolte and “Smashed” with Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Alcohol abuse is his niche, and he skillfully guides us into Sutter’s life-of-the-party charm, through his boozy but quite functional be-here-now existence. Sutter laughs easily, has genuine moments with his ex-girlfriend and her new beau, and yet takes nips from a flask at school, on the road, on the job (Bob Odenkirk is his boss) at a men’s clothing store.
Aimee? She’s not a drinker, is flattered by the attention and is putty in his hands. He gives her booze, strokes her ego, and without a whit of malice, accidentally woos her and changes her world.
The lead performances are engaging in all the right ways. And Ponsoldt assembles a great cast around them, giving Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Sutter’s divorced, haggard working mom (a nurse), Winstead (his escape-the-past older sister) and Kyle Chandler (his absent dad) good scenes that they repay with warm, wonderful moments.
But the best things about “The Spectacular Now” are the ways it goes deep. Teller never lets us see the wheels turn as Sutter juggles feelings for his ex with his guilty, casual reaction to Aimee. Woodley gives Aimee a glorious guilelessness that make us instantly connect with her.
And Ponsoldt, doing great service to Tharp’s novel, gradually but firmly shows us the pitfalls of the philosophy of “living in the now,” and what happens to people who embrace that credo a little too literally at a too-young age.