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Review: ‘The Spectacular Now’ Dares to Tell the Truth

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in 'The Spectacular Now'
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in ‘The Spectacular Now’

A rare coming-of-age film that dares to tell the truth, The Spectacular Now is rough and uneven, yet it feels like the authentic experience of one young man.

That young man is named Sutter (Miles Teller), and his deeper conflicts are hidden, he thinks, beneath his likable, pleasant, ‘no worries’ demeanor. He doesn’t take anything seriously, and that’s served him well, he thinks, until the morning he wakes up, hungover, lying outside somebody else’s house.

Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a schoolmate, wakes him up as she’s heading out for her early-morning job delivering newspapers, and the two begin a slowly whirling friendship that eventually deepens into a romantic relationship. It’s the summer after high school graduation, and Aimee is heading away to college, but Sutter is a good-looking boy and no one has ever paid much attention to her before.

Frankly, Sutter is not interested in cultivating a relationship with Aimee. On the surface, he’s kind and gentle and softly flirtatious toward her, yet he’s harboring a tremendous amount of repressed anger that is bound to burst forth at some inopportune moment and ruin everything. He’s not happy with his mother (Jennifer Jason Leight), who has kept him from seeing his father for years. He kinda resents the happiness enjoyed by his older sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the comfortable existence she has with her husband. And he blithely disregards the genuine, patient concern expressed by Mr. Aster (the great Andre Royo), the school counselor.

So, Sutter spends time with Aimee just to have something to do while he pines for his ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), who dumped him for no apparent reason, according to his way of thinking. And he drinks, often by himself, from flasks and bottles and cups, as much as is humanly possible.

Sutter’s deep-seated issues eventually come to the surface when he is finally reunited with his father (Kyle Chandler), but he still has a great deal of growing up to do before he can actually be said to “come of age” in any meaningful sense. That’s, especially, where and how The Spectacular Now distinguishes itself from run-of-the-mill teen coming-of-age movies.

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who previously collaborated on the script for (500) Days of Summer, have adapted Tim Tharp’s 2010 novel with keen insight. The film, directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed), is paced beautifully; it unfolds gracefully, allowing the characters to breathe and the story to proceed in a logical manner — for someone who is looking back with a touch of distance.

Sutter encourages Aimee to loosen up, and talks constantly about ‘living in the now.’ The drinking and the partying and the relaxed attitudes certainly look like the fabled good times that so many teens desire. Then the realities of making ends meet come crashing down, and, save for those living with extraordinarily wealthy and indulgent parents, life becomes less about a series of parties then a never-ending quest to get by and maybe, just maybe, enjoy a break, now and again.

Rueful yet empathetic, The Spectacular Now points to the real source of most of our troubles — hint: look in the mirror — and then suggests there is still hope for all of us. That makes it one of the most meaningful films of the year.

The film opens at Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano on Friday, August 16.