“The Spectacular Now” should come with a warning for teenagers. Something like:
By DAVID FRESE
The Kansas City Star
“YOU GUYS! Do NOT let your mom or dad SEE THIS MOVIE!!!!”
That’s because this adaptation of Tim Tharp’s coming-of-age novel feels so authentic it’s less like watching a movie and more like eavesdropping on what goes on between a boyfriend and a girlfriend when parents aren’t around.
A nearly perfect cast, nontraditional direction and an uncompromising script help “The Spectacular Now” live up to its title.
Miles Teller (“21 and Over”) plays Sutter, a small-town high-school senior who envisions himself as the life of the party, though the truth is he’s about 12 steps away from becoming the town drunk.
After a particularly epic night of post-breakup boozing, Sutter is awakened by classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley), who spots him passed out on someone’s lawn while on her morning paper route.
You’d be forgiven for thinking a standard teen romance would follow. You know, girl giggles at guy doing something goofy, girl and guy kiss awkwardly. After a sunshiny, good-times montage set to an upbeat song, there would be a misunderstanding in the rain, a breakup while it’s raining and a teary reconciliation, probably in the rain.
Instead, “The Spectacular Now” becomes an exploration of what it means to grow up and leave behind not just the people but the stories that shape our own personal mythologies.
That such an inherently sad and somewhat tragic film so pleasantly succeeds is testament to the skill of Teller and Woodley and the direction of James Ponsoldt.
Teller’s Sutter is a selfish, manipulative jerk who thankfully grows on you. Woodley, the Golden Globe-nominated star of George Clooney’s “The Descendants” and ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” shuns makeup for much of her performance, giving Aimee a rough, organic edge.
Though they’re from opposite worlds, their relationship evolves naturally. Sutter casually tucks Aimee’s hair behind her ear. She wraps her arms around his shoulders at a dance and bites the tip of her thumb. He flirts and jokes like the heir apparent to Vince Vaughn, and she feigns surprise, her voice squeaking like fingers sliding down the fretboard of an acoustic guitar.
At the film’s most meaningful moments, director Ponsoldt holds the camera on them without cutting away, letting two actors react to each other. Viewers become voyeurs, especially when Sutter and Aimee consummate their relationship in her unicorn-and-manga-adorned bedroom. It’s a scene sure to elicit uncomfortable seat-shifting by many a parent of teenagers.
The film is being marketed as this generation’s “Say Anything.” Maybe. A more apt comparison would be a less nihilistic “(500) Days of Summer,” with which it shares screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.
They thankfully jettison some of the book’s heavy-handedness on alcoholism — and at times the film still has too much.
But booziness is the point of Sutter’s “live in the now” existence. Part of Sutter’s initial attraction to Aimee is the potential to corrupt her. But what he sees as innocence is actually simple kindness, and as she starts to help him see himself for the emerging drunk that he is, his party-boy charm gives way to a heavy acceptance of adulthood.
Sutter’s clothing store employer (Bob Odenkirk of “Breaking Bad”) quietly confronts Sutter about his drinking, saying, “If I was your father, I’d give you some sort of lecture.”
“If you were my father,” Sutter says, “you wouldn’t have to.”
It’s a wonderful scene that exemplifies the film’s refusal to submit to maudlin cinema archetypes.
“The Spectacular Now” is a lovely grown-up story about falling in love and growing up, that, yes, spectacularly shows how we are able to find ourselves only by finding each other.
(At the Cinemark Palace.)
To reach entertainment editor David Frese, send email to email@example.com.