Movie Review: "The Spectacular Now"
Rating: R (alcohol use, language, and some sexuality involving teens)
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: January 18, 2013
Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Stars: 3 out of 5
High-school senior Sutter (Miles Teller) appears to have everything together on the outside, but that's only because he is an expert in masking his true insecurities. He is also an expert in masking the fact that he is an alcoholic who carries a flask of liquor everywhere he goes. He even gets his girlfriends to drink, which is part of the reason why his most recent relationship with Cassidy (Brie Larson) has gone south. His mother, Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), either doesn't realize there is something wrong, or is in denial about it.
One day Sutter wakes up, hung over and tired, next to the front lawn of Aimee (Shailene Woodley), who he doesn't recognize despite the fact that they go to the same school. She is a shy girl with a big heart who takes pity on Sutter rather than judging him. They strike up a conversation while walking in the woods, and a friendship begins to form. Soon, there is more to the relationship than just friendliness, and the two teens find themselves falling in love, much to the chagrin of their friends, who see nothing but a looming disaster.
The pragmatic Aimee, who has now started drinking because of Sutter, has plans to attend college and create a good life for herself. This is in direct contrast to Sutter, who thinks that a minimum-wage job will take him through life just fine. Their opposing plans clash, which causes Sutter's older sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), to arrange a meeting with their estranged father, Tommy (Kyle Chandler). Her hope is that Sutter will see what a life of alcohol and low wages will do to a person, but the plan has some unintended consequences. Those consequences could change the course of Aimee and Sutter's lives forever, and not for the better.
There are many films that treat teenagers like a punch line or as simply a sideshow to complicate the plot for the main characters. When teenagers take center stage in a film, they are rarely treated with the intelligence and humanity that appears in "The Spectacular Now." High school seniors already have so much on their plate, including the pressure to do well on SATs, get into college, and graduate from high school. Teens rarely get praised for handling all of this stress, but director James Ponsoldt gives them plenty of credit here. He treats the two teens at the heart of the film as confused, passionate souls who can't possibly see how the choices they make today will affect them in the future. They are normal kids handling abnormal circumstances and doing the best they can.
Ponsoldt is no stranger to making films that center on alcoholics, having made the underrated "Smashed" in 2012. That film was about a married couple who are both functional alcoholics, and what happens to their relationship when one gets sober and the other doesn't. "The Spectacular Now" is very different because the focus is on an alcoholic teenager, which presents a whole new set of issues. It's a sensitive subject that could have gone awry in a less talented director's hands. He is working from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who adapted it from the book by Tim Tharp. This isn't the first time this dynamic duo has adapted Tharp's work, which may be part of the reason why the material seems so personal and honest.
The director and writers are really great here, but huge credit also has to go to the very talented cast. Teller is fantastic as Sutter, a very intelligent young man who does really stupid things, risking his life and the lives of others. Woodley has long been the standout member of the cast of the ABC family drama, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," and got the attention of casting directors after her turn opposite George Clooney in "The Descendants." She may be playing the quiet, invisible girl at school, but she practically glows in her role. She is being touted as the Next Big Thing, and "The Spectacular Now" (watch trailer) proves that she has the acting chops to make it happen.