James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now practically marches up and announces to you that it’s going to serve a refreshingly multi-dimensional portrayal of teens and their problems. Upon meeting his love interest when he wakes up on her lawn after a drunken blackout, our protagonist Sutter (Miles Teller) asks her, “So, what’s your thing?” “I like to think there’s more about a person than one thing,” replies Amy (Shailene Woodley).
Yes, like the soft-spoken John Hughes-created dramedy heroes that came before them, Sutter and Amy have many things. Many overlapping things, they discover, as they get to know each other over the course of the movie: resentment for their mothers (his is too strict, hers is too self-involved), absentee fathers (his is a deadbeat, hers is dead), a certain apathy for the future. Their relationship becomes somewhat polyamorous: Alcohol rounds out what's essentially a three-way. Sutter, the self-described life of the party who barely can go a scene without sipping from his flask, introduces Amy to booze. She loves it. The Spectacular Now may be a traditional coming-of-age story, but it’s also about the point in life when experimentation with alcohol stops being a cute hallmark of the teenage experience and starts becoming a problem.
The parallels of the main characters' lives, the pronounced motifs, and the bait-and-switch foreshadowing of The Spectacular Now all reminded me of this year’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Both are plot device-fueled houses of cards that would be excruciating in other hands, but ultimately strand strong on the naturalism of their performances. Through Sutter, Teller manages to convey the seductiveness, and lay bare the folly, of a teenage mindset—#YOLO!—that the film warns against.
Woodley’s even better. We watch Amy blossom from a self-conscious wallflower who can’t even tell when a guy’s hitting on her to a young woman on her way to confidence (the way her awkwardness melts away during the humorous Sutter-Amy sex scene is masterful). She and her sly, introverted grin convey what’s so appealing and endearing about a someone not yet aware of her own beauty, and her development illustrates what’s so satisfying when she finally gets it. Sutter is a premature train wreck of a human being, who has a hard time taking even the film's premise seriously. "Worst case scenario, I’m just giving her the boyfriend experience," is how he explains his association with Amy to a friend of his. Meanwhile, he’s the best thing that happened to her—for all of his talk about living in the moment, it is she who figures out how to make use of it.
This movie season has been largely characterized by disappointing blockbuster after disappointing blockbuster. Meanwhile, just below the surface is one of the most enjoyable seasons in recent memory for smaller, character-driven films. Woody Allen’s hilarious-devastating (and back and forth—often within the same scene) Blue Jasmine, Crystal Fairy, The To Do List, and Fruitvale Station are all better ways to spend your time than watching superheroes survive explosions. The Spectacular Now also belongs firmly on that list.