Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is the charming, good time guy who lives in the moment. Self-assured, he’s the life of the party, popular and he and his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) breeze through their high school experience. Sutter and Cassidy are like a teenage power couple that rule parties thanks to their appeal and all the social lubricants at hand. But, writing an admission letter to the Dean of a university, Sutter reveals his life is at a crossroads. Thinking she’s caught him with another girl, Cassidy has dumped him, when the truth is that Sutter was using his good-time skills to help get his timid friend Ricky (Masam Holden) laid. But Cassidy isn’t having it and Sutter can’t see why this is the straw that broke the camel’s back with her.
So, Sutter is moving on, and getting ready to enter a new phase of his life: singledom. This means he boozes up, drives around and finds himself blacked out on a random front lawn, his car nowhere in sight. Serendipity strikes as he’s awoken at 6 a..m. by Aimee Finicky (“The Descendants” star Shailene Woodley), who’s doing the rounds on her paper route and finds the popular kid from high school passed out. The meet-cute extends to Sutter helping her drive around to do her paper route so he can also find his car.
Lonely and directionless, Sutter seems charmed by the unpopular (or invisible rather) Aimee who’s introverted and a little bit nerdy, and soon she’s helping him out with his geometry homework and a relationship begins to blossom. Ricky doesn’t understand why of all the girls in school, Sutter is going after Aimee and wonders aloud if this rebound is going to break the impressionable girl’s heart. Sutter is sympathetic to the fact that she’s not a draw at school, but both share a bond in their rocky family lives. Sutter’s mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works at a hospital pulling night shifts and is hardly around. His dad (eventually revealed to be Kyle Chandler) has been absent since he was a child and his sister (“Smashed” star Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the well-intentioned trophy wife of a lawyer, hasn’t worked a day since they married. Aimee’s mom is never seen, but it’s clear they’re not a wealthy family, and college might just be a pipe dream for her.
And so while Sutter and Aimee’s relationship blooms into something real and romantic, the 18-year-old still pines for Cassidy, and becomes jealous of Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), her new beau. And when things start getting serious with Aimee, he plays aloof. But once the relationship settles, Sutter takes Aimee on a three-hour pilgrimage to visit his father and the teenager is in for a rude awakening. This meet-up dovetails with a self-realization for Sutter: while beloved, no one takes him seriously. He is so intent on living in the now that people can’t invest in his future. His fecklessness and boozing (a spiked 7-11 cup is never far from his hand), was a factor in Cassidy leaving him, and while Aimee wants Sutter to follow her to college in Philadelphia, he begins to realize that he may not be the best influence on her.
Much more meaty drama than teen comedy, director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) treats the story and characters with respect and seriousness almost to a fault. While not dour, “The Spectacular Now” can also be tremendously heavy. That’s not a bad thing, the picture is far more substantive than most teen relationship films, but it could probably use just a smidgeon of levity here and there after the first act.
Ponsoldt’s picture is self-possessed, mature and deeply patient, but it’s perhaps not at the exact pace some audiences are accustomed to. At 95 minutes, “The Spectacular Now” feels closer to two hours and that’s both to its benefit and minor detriment. Marked by long takes — one steady-cam shot is seven minutes long — Ponsoldt puts the emphasis on his actors and considering how good his cast is, it’s a smart move. Teller, who went toe-to-toe with Nicole Kidman in the criminally underrated “Rabbit Hole,” is effortlessly real in the movie. Woodley is terrific and painfully genuine, and across the board, the entire cast (which also includes Andre Royo from “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” star Bob Odenkirk) imbues an authenticity that adds to the true-feeling greater whole.
Written by the guys who penned “(500) Days Of Summer”), the thematic element of alcohol (also present in Ponsoldt’s previous picture “Smashed”) is disconcerting, yet accurate storytelling. Clearly Sutter has a drinking problem like his father, but neither the script or the filmmakers attempt to round off the edges here and give the teenager any safe life lessons to learn from (though there is one small moment of self-recognition near the end). While the audience craves Sutter to find some resolution here, wrapping up all his problems would just be too clean and neat. This is more true to life, even if it’s a harder pill to swallow. This kid is clearly a work in progress, who is only now just waking up to the world and himself and figuring out who he truly is.
Don’t be surprised if the film is sold like “(500) Days Of Summer” (or a similar film) when it eventually makes its way to theaters, but this picture is particularly darker, sadder and pained. “The Spectacular Now” is wise beyond its years, charismatic, measured and authentic in its depiction of the pains, confusions and insecurities of the teenage experience, and while its deliberate rhythm may prove to be a harder sell among the teen crowd, it’s a valuable and honest film that’s worth the investment. [B]