There's a unique thrill to movies that break or bend the expectations established by their genres, but it's often just as satisfying when they follow expectations beat by beat without screwing it up. Such is the case with "The Spectacular Now," James Ponsoldt's highly enjoyable coming of age story, as it consciously harkens back to eighties precedents from the heyday of John Hughes. Anchored by a funny and especially credible performance by newcomer Miles Teller, Ponsoldt's follow up to his alcoholism portrait "Smashed" has all the hallmarks of a bittersweet teen drama with flashes of realistic comedy on par with "Say Anything" and "The Breakfast Club." While it lacks some of the complexities found in Hughes' characters, Ponsoldt's treatment of the material, adapted from Tom Tharp's novel, brings clarity to emotional tenor of growing under duress, allowing it to excel at recognizing the limitations of the material.
In the chaotic montage that opens the story, goofball high school senior Sutter Kelly (Teller) recounts the ups and downs of his carefree romance with Cassidy (Brie Larson), who abruptly dumps him after a misunderstanding. He's not a great student and has no distinct plans for the future, instead living adrift in his quest to enjoy the present moment. Ponsoldt breaks down that dream beat by beat. Though the pieces are arranged through a conventional voiceover narration supplied by the sloppy lead, Ponsoldt strings together tidbits of scenes with a developing rhythm that echoes the manner in which Sutter's life careens out of control. The sequence lasts a full six minutes before it culminates in the title credit, unveiled in the midst of Sutter's drunken meltdown. It's a terrifically energetic introduction to Sutter's distinctly charismatic attitude as it borders on self-destruction.
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The next step involves the woman who pulls him out of that cycle. That would be Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), the unpopular girl whose lawn Sutter wakes up on after a wild night out. Barely recognizing her from the sea of classmates, he quickly befriends her. But during another drunken excursion when the duo attend a class party, he takes their relationship to the next level, leading to a new romantic interest better suited to his soul-searching state. While Sutter shifts between sloven attempts to regain his ex's affections and relax into a more sincere romance with the virginal Aimee, the script (by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) ups the cliché factor as Sutter goes on a quest to find his long-lost alcoholic dad (Kyle Chandler), finds him a wreck, and falls back into a funk. While Aimee is far from the proverbial Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she has similar rejuvenating powers in that she helps Sutter realize he's got more life ahead of him. Their believable chemistry rescues "The Spectacular Now" from completely dissolving into total romantic mush.
As with Ponsoldt's "Smashed," a straightforward portrait of alcoholism elevated by Mary Elizabeth Winstead's extraordinary turn, "The Spectacular Now" owes much to its performances. Teller's untempered energy is matched by his sly refrains, while Woodley's sweet, unassuming presence belies an attitude lurking just beneath the surface. Their believable screen presence transcends the by-the-numbers routine to the point where it rejuvenates the ritual of courtship and heartbreak they both endure. "You gotta live in the moment," Miles asserts early on, but "The Spectacular Now" efficiently lives in a past that's the worth the visit.
Though it premiered in January at Sundance, Ponsoldt's movie hits theaters one week after "The To Do List," a highly enjoyable feminine take on the teen sex romp. Viewed together -- in fact, they would make a terrific double bill -- these movies, both released by specialty distributors, provide a welcome alternative to studio comedies in which the exaggerated goofiness of the characters turn them into remote, alien creatures. "The To Do List" revels in the humor of uncensored raunchiness, but it's mainly a reminder that strongly written characters flourish no matter how much their process of self-discovery is a routine. While "The Spectacular Now" also offers nothing new, it achieves an intimacy with its protagonists that's nearly radical compared with the mainstream industry standard (which would be…"Grown Ups 2," I guess). While paying homage to the cycle of frustration and anticipation that defines the final surge of teen experience, it also salutes the possibilities of formula done right.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A24 releases "The Spectacular Now" in several cities this Friday ahead of a national expansion. Though most reviews have been positive, the lack of A-list stars in the heat of summer make it a hard sell. It could gain ground via word of mouth over the next several weeks.