This is so not the teen-romance dramedy I thought it was going to be from its opening moments, when high-school senior and legend-in-his-own-mind Sutter (Miles Teller: Project X, Footloose) is trying to whip up an essay for his college application about a “challenge or hardship” he has faced… and he decides to write about how he is coping now that his perfect girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson: 21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), has dumped him, thereby ending their rule as the adolescent royalty of their school. Seriously? I thought, with an exasperated mental sigh.
Thankfully, it turns out that Sutter getting his obliviousness to how uncharming his screwed-up-edness is stripped away is going to be the point of this, perhaps the most down-to-gritty-earth teen movie since Say Anything… and a helluva lot more stark than that film ever got. It’s based on the young-adult novel by Tim Tharp, and it’s one of those teen stories that doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how complicated navigating adolescence is, but also how the things that adults panic over aren’t necessarily the ones to worry about. (Teens are probably handling the sex stuff just fine, for instance.)
Director James Ponsoldt’s last film was the astonishing Smashed, and casual, not-hidden-yet-apparently-unseen alcoholism is a factor here, too: Sutter is barely ever without a Big Gulp cup in his hand, and we soon come to know that he’s constantly spiking his soft drink with the harder stuff in his flask. (People still use flasks? Kids use flasks? Who knew? It’s little touches like this that ground the film in unpredictable, inescapable reality.) The perspective is so resolutely with Sutter that the little blasts of awakening he is hit with come as a series of shocks to us, too… like when his boss (comedian Bob Odenkirk [Movie 43], in a sweet straight role) smacks away Sutter’s certain confidence that he’s living life in “overdrive” by telling him to “get in gear.”
It’s via his relationship with new girlfriend Aimee (Shailene Woodley: The Descendants) that Sutter makes the most profound discoveries about himself, though he starts out thinking he’s the one helping her, by letting her be seen with popular, life-of-the-party Sutter. No Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Aimee is her own kind of lost and confused, and their connection is bittersweet… until it turns disturbing. But never in a way that isn’t, as with the entirety of the film, wholly justified by the conflicting realities of how real people behave: not always in their own best interests, not always with full (or any) self-awareness, yet not always in ways ruinous even if they might seem that way at first. Teller and Woodley are remarkable separately here, but when they’re together, they create a connection for their characters that goes far beyond what we expect from the genre. Their Sutter and Aimee are already real people, just unfinished ones.
The Spectacular Now is not always pleasant. It’s not meant to be. But it is wholly wonderful.
viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival