‘The Spectacular Now’
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Masam Holden, Dayo Okeniyi
Rated: R, for alcohol use, language and some sexuality — all involving teens
Runtime: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Bottom line: One of the year’s best, with local ties
Athens native James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now” is a bona fide festival circuit and art house hit that is now widening into multiplexes in our area. This is the moment when the film either breaks into mainstream success or doesn’t, and few indies are more deserving of reaching a wider audience.
The movie opens with a deft sleight of hand.
High school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is trying to write a college application essay, a device we’ve seen many times. For the first 30 seconds or so, Sutter appears to be a standard stereotype of teen movies. He is popular, self-absorbed and unconcerned with anything other than being the life of the party. He believes he and his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), are the royal couple of the high school party scene.
But by the end of this brilliant opening sequence, it’s clear this is not a standard genre flick.
What Sutter has deluded himself into believing is carefree, carpe diem behavior is actually destructive. His unrelenting search for immediate pleasure masks deep wounds.
He sees himself as gliding gracefully through a life everyone else envies, but in truth he is a barely functional alcoholic whom his peers view as a joke.
We watch him careen further out of control — the film’s style expresses this transition by growing increasingly chaotic — until he ends up passed out on a strange lawn with no idea where his car is. He literally falls flat on his face, which foreshadows a more painful, emotional reckoning to come.
This exemplifies how “The Spectacular Now” works on its audience. It briefly nods to what we expect from teen movies, but then reaches for something more profound. Ponsoldt lets us know before the title even appears we are about to go well beyond the superficial, tired tropes of the genre.
There on the lawn, Sutter meets Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a bookish good girl who avoids cliques while biding her time until she can graduate and get out. She is a person of substance, responsibility and control.
Sutter has never dated someone like Aimee, but as he puts it, once you get to know Aimee, you see how beautiful she is. The two fall deeper in love as Sutter is forced to take increasingly harder looks at who he really is and what he might become.
“The Spectacular Now” will appeal to young adult audiences, but it will also ring true for more mature viewers. It’s not primarily a nostalgic movie, yet it nails the perilous transition into adulthood so honestly it’s impossible not to reflect on that period of our own lives.
Most of all, though, this is a real film. It features an abundance of impressive craft, naturalistic acting and surprising stylistic choices.
Some are calling it a perfect movie. I don’t know if it’s exactly that, or whether a perfect movie even exists, but it does contain several scenes that are perfectly shot and acted.
The chemistry between Teller and Woodley is simply extraordinary. Sutter’s relationship with his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is difficult but realistic. When he meets his father (Kyle Chandler), whom he hasn’t seen since he was a boy, it’s flat out heartbreaking.
And one scene between Sutter and his boss (Bob Odenkirk) is not only flawlessly acted, it contains one of the most insightful single lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard.
Ponsoldt is fond of long takes and a slowly moving camera. He uses that style to allow his actors to explore their characters, and it pays off over and over again in this movie.
Sutter ultimately achieves a bit of wisdom well beyond his years — a point that shouldn’t be understated. “The Spectacular Now” offers a genuine epiphany and does so without pandering or beating us over the head.
I only get to make that statement a few times per year, and we only get such artful movies about teens a few times per generation.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.