The cross-clique high school romance of James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now has been likened to that of Say Anything, but the film actually has more in common with Good Will Hunting. As in Gus van Sant’s film, a troubled young man is given a great potential for happiness, but years of obstacles have convinced him that he’s undeserving of such a life. Paired with a great girl with whom he has natural chemistry and quoting lines from an exceptional script, it’s a recipe for success and one that again works here. Emotionally involving to an unexpected degree, Ponsoldt’s film makes viewers ache for this troubled soul on his compelling, roller-coaster quest to grow up.
Though no genius, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) parties hard like Will Hunting and is content to settle for basic pleasures. A spiked cup all but glued to his hand, he’s eerily become an expert at incorporating alcohol’s effects into his personality, almost entirely cloaking its less desirable consequences. When he does lose control, the results are ugly, yet when he awakes to the face of Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), in whose front yard he passed out following a breakup-induced bender, it’s as if he was meant to land there. Clicking immediately with this previously unknown classmate, he comes to crave her company, and as their relationship grows, being in their presence becomes increasingly desirable.
Simply put, it’s a pleasure to get to know Aimee. The “nice girl” type is a familiar one, but Woodley makes her feel fresh and real. She’s a genuine person, unafraid to speak her mind and stand up for her interests while still admitting that things like her interest in Japanese comics are silly. That she manages to share these tidbits and be honest without coming off as bristly or a cliché is a testament to the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the team behind 500 Days of Summer, working from Tim Tharp’s novel), but also to the one bringing this creation to life.
Anchored by wonderful conversation pieces, notably a long take walk in the woods where Aimee and Sutter first delve into serious personal details, these exchanges are the heart of The Spectacular Now. With Rob Simonsen’s light but intricate score guiding these dialogues to their intended destinations, the essence of what makes each person tick is revealed. Aimee is easily the most likable of the two, but much skill is required to pull off the complexities of Sutter. Building on the promise shown in Rabbit Hole, Teller organically conveys the many sides of this supposed one-dimensional party boy, thoroughly selling his desirable and undesirable qualities.
Of the latter variety is a painful uncertainty of his intentions, an ambiguity key to the film’s greatness. An optimistic reading is that he’s truly interested in Aimee, but numerous signs point to simply using her as a means of getting back with his ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). Complicating these protective feelings for Aimee is his drinking problem. Continuing the brutal honesty of Ponsoldt’s Smashed, the sense of an inevitable alcoholic comeuppance looms over his romantic joy. Much of the tension derives from an idealized relationship with his estranged father Tommy, the reality of which come home to roost in a hard-hitting encounter. Played by Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights) in a rare antagonist turn, the elder Keely’s irresponsible, brain-fried speech is suffocating and gives Sutter a heartbreaking glimpse into his own potential future.
As they must, that paternal pain, Sutter’s frequent habit of driving while impaired, and the above concerns all come together in a surprisingly powerful way, amplified by the deep level of care that Ponsoldt, his screenwriters, and his stars jointly cultivate. For 95 engrossing minutes, these gifted collaborators entertain with a rare realistic compassion, and unlike The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The Spectacular Now truly lives up to its title.
Rated R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality – all involving teens.
The Spectacular Now is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.