James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is the most authentic depiction of what it means to be a teenager since Cameron Crowe’s landmark Say Anything. It’s so adept at conveying youthuful awkwardness, petulance, regret, and how every moment in a teenager’s life could signify the end of their comfortable world that it could practically incite post traumatic stress memories in those who watch it. The aching and longing at the heart of this bracing work is the kind that informs the rest of a young person’s life for better or worse, and it’s all done entirely free of cliche or artifice.
It’s almost the end of their senior year of high school. The carefree and academically free falling Sutter (Miles Teller) has just broken up with his first serious girlfriend (Brie Larson). Heartbroken, but not necessarily looking for a rebound, the quiet, somewhat closed off, but not entirely impersonal Amy (Shailene Woodley) catches his eye. He’s kind of a bro and she’s a bit of a geek, and yet they begin an almost consistently tenuous relationship that will change the direction of their lives forever.
Based on the novel by Tim Tharp and written by 500 Days of Summer scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber (albeit in a completely different tone from their most heralded success), The Spectacular Now is a character study in the truest sense. Sutter and Amy are two people trying to find out who they really are at a time in life when it just so happens to be the most difficult.
Neither is an idealized character. Sutter acts a lot more arrogant than he should, he drinks at work, his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is deathly afraid he’s going to turn out like his estranged father (Kyle Chandler), and he’s determined to never leave his sleepy hometown. Amy’s shyness causes her to never realize her true worth – allowing her unseen mother to essentially walk all over her – but aside from that she’s vastly better adjusted. That’s why it’s so painfully ungraceful that Sutter should see his hanging out with Amy not as a blossoming, loving, and sexual relationship, but rather as him “saving her.”
And yet, that’s strangely the mentality of many single males at that age. Despite having similar single parent backgrounds, the relationship inspires Amy with a confidence she never knew she had. On the other hand, Sutter has to sadly regress further in order to see the message he has to learn sooner rather than later. She yearns in her heart to leave, and when he half-heartedly agrees to follow her, it’s clear from his tone that she likes him and lot more than he likes her.
Teller (getting a little bit away from the teen comedies he’s been popping up in and doing something closer to his work in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole) has no problem being charming or conveying the less savoury aspects of Sutter’s personality. He’s not a jerk, just chronically aloof and oblivious. He has the conviction of thinking his heart is always in the right place, and while he isn’t always that far off, he still has no clue what he really wants out of life. His mother is never around and his father has been out of the picture and useless for quite some time, so what Ponsoldt and company turn Sutter into is a delicate portrait of a confused young man who doesn’t realize he’s equally terrified of intimacy and loneliness.
Woodley, fresh off her numerous hard deserved accolades for her work in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, provides the perfect counterpart, lover, and foil for Sutter. Amy is a naturally trusting soul who believes that Sutter can do better, but as much as he builds her up by saying the same, she has a harder time saying it back. The one time she manages to convince him to go along with something, the outcome is incredibly dark and disastrous. And yet, it leads to her character becoming richer as the film goes on. While Sutter is an open book, Amy holds more secrets than the movie is capable of getting around to. Watching her learning to speak up for herself is a large part of the story and their mutual transformation, but the things Amy chooses to hold back on are far more interesting.
Both have moments where the young actors are capable of saying one thing, but lying through their teeth emotionally. Sutter does it frequently out of the fear of loss, while it becomes clear Amy’s omissions are the product of something deeper. She makes Sutter want to be more respectable even without the romantic connotations of their relationship. That’s huge. Aside from giving her confidence, however, all Sutter gives her is a flask to pull out when she’s troubled or excited. He thinks that at some point he will no longer be good enough and will end up hurting her. If he stays on his current path and with his current attitude he would be correct, but he’s too young and naieve to see that this is the relationship that will teach him how to handle all others in the future. Teller and Woodley are good enough to convey this almost wordlessly, with their actions holding more weight than their actual words do.
Ponsoldt (Smashed) populates the film with a strong supporting cast of players that are large enough to make impressions in short periods of time so they never drown out the core dynamic. Everyone gets a chance to have at least one truly excellent scene and they all make the most of it. Larson’s ex-girlfriend character gets to be the one to tearfully break it to Sutter that he’s kind of stagnant and stale. Chandler’s pappy always looks like he’s about to nod off into a pitcher of Budweiser and stands as the chilling reflection of what Sutter thinks his cool life could be like. Leigh’s mother is a bit more of a cypher, and intriguingly not much more mature than the teens are despite her job as a nurse. She’s loving, but her constant skirting of the facts and her perpetual absence from Sutter’s life make her understandably disdainful at times. Mary Elizabeth Winstead pops up as Sutter’s soon to married to an older man sister, and she seems almost crestfallen in one of the film’s best scenes where she can’t figure out how to be a big sister and give adequate advice. Also factoring into one of the best scenes that underlines Sutter having a big heart is Dayo Onkeniyi, as the man now dating his ex who isn’t quite sure the former lovers are fully over each other yet.
Every word of Neustadter and Webber’s script cuts like a knife, and Ponsoldt directs to match. His style is almost frighteningly voyeuristic. There are lots of haunting looking medium shots used to illustrate the distance. Only when the film needs to get truly intimate and emotional does the director press in a bit further, and even then the raw, and sometimes brutally honest nature of what’s being said is striking. This is the film that cuts out the pop culture minutiae that so many other filmmakers get hung up on because they sometimes wrong-headedly think that the one song that saved your life will be tied to a memory. Those films focus on the songs instead of the actual moments around them, and freed of any sort of gimmickry those moments leap off the screen with the significance they deserve.
The Spectacular Now certainly lives up to its name and then some. Films about young people that are this heartfelt with regards to both the bright spots and low points of being a teenager are an extreme rarity. There’s never a moment that the film goes somewhere expected, when it’s expected. Even when our worst fears are somewhat realized and valid, it’s only because deep down we’ve been placed in the shoes of the teens themselves. We never wanted it to get to this point and we’re helpless to stop what’s coming. It’s part of growing up, and it’s ultimately the place where Ponsoldt and his cast and crew succeed. It’s about the beauty, innocence, futility, and hope of being young, and I can’t think of the last film to deal with it this well in decades.