‘The Spectacular Now’ Review
Sutter Keely is the kind of laid-back, party-hard guy you’d love to hang out with in high school. But when the party ends, where does his life begin? ‘The Spectacular Now‘ answers this question with heart-breaking poignancy, where even the moments of levity are motivated by a particularly sweet kind of teenage sadness.
James Ponsoldt follows up last year’s daunting drama ‘Smashed‘ with ‘The Spectacular Now,’ and like his previous film, this one also concerns alcoholism. Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, a charismatic teen on the verge of graduating high school, whose life motto is all about living in the now and having the best time possible. When he meets fellow student Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) after a night of drinking to forget he was dumped by his girlfriend, he becomes determined to instill his values in Aimee, encouraging her to be more bold, while also gently nudging her into casual alcohol dependency.
Where ‘Smashed’ examined the effects of alcoholism as shared between a married couple, ‘The Spectacular Now’ glimpses at its genesis, where harmless teen fun has a darker side. Sutter’s drinking and good times allow him to exist on a very superficial and oblivious plane, where he can blame his mom for his dad leaving their family, and he can shrug off his college application with a swig of whiskey. He’s drinking to obscure emotions he doesn’t even realize exist, just as Aimee helps him remove an old band-aid he hadn’t noticed.
There are so many beautiful elements to ‘The Spectacular Now,’ like the incredible and restrained performances of Teller and Woodley, whose conversations are nostalgic call-backs to the awkward and naive interactions of high school, when you’re so confident that you’ve got it all figured out before you’ve even had to do any real figuring. Sutter is so aloof that he doesn’t understand what his relationship with Aimee is doing for him, let alone what he’s doing to her. And while it’s easy to cringe every time he drunkenly offers a kindness or agrees to do something with her, in the long run, he’s definitely giving her an unforgettable and life-shaping experience — just not the kind he thinks he is.
The supporting actors give equally compelling performances in their minimized roles: ‘Smashed’ star Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Sutter’s well-to-do older sister; instead of turning to drinking like Sutter to hide her childhood pain, she searched for fiscal and emotional security to avoid her mother’s fate. ‘Breaking Bad‘ star Bob Odenkirk plays Sutter’s boss at a men’s suit store, and the closest thing Sutter has to a father figure, while ‘The Wire’ star Andre Royo plays his math teacher, a guy more concerned about Sutter’s future than he is. Brie Larson‘s work must also be acknowledged as Sutter’s recent ex-girlfriend, who realizes that Sutter is incapable of giving her the future she wants.
When Sutter pays a highly anticipated visit to his father (Kyle Chandler, playing the total opposite of Coach Taylor from ‘Friday Night Lights’), it’s the final tug to unravel his thread, shifting the movie from a darkly charming but honest coming-of-age film to something much more poignant and insightful. The scenes between Sutter and his father, and later, Sutter and his mother (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), are cringe-worthy and confrontational in their emotional honesty. When the band-aid finally comes off, everything underneath is raw. It does lean toward the melodramatic a bit in the third act, but the film takes you by the hand with such sincerity that it’s hard not to follow wherever it leads.
‘The Spectacular Now’ sets itself apart from this summer’s other notable coming-of-age stories with its restraint. It doesn’t rely on overtly quirky and subversive humor (‘The Kings of Summer,’ which is great, by the way), nor does it try to punctuate outrageous melodrama with sharp or crass comedy (‘The Way, Way Back‘). ‘The Spectacular Now’ works because it insists on allowing these actors and characters to pull you in with their alarming emotional candor.
‘The Spectacular Now’ is now playing in select theaters.