Surely the title of “The Spectacular Now” is doubly ironic. Sutter Keely has a decidedly unspectacular “now” as a high school senior: He’s close to failing out, he turns up sloshed for his job in a clothing store, he can’t relate to his hard-working single mom, and his glamorous girlfriend has abandoned him for a better prospect. And as he wises up under the attention of quiet classmate Aimee Finecky, he learns a secret: not to live always in the giddy present, but to find something lasting that may lead to spectacular joy.
Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber produced a similarly honest romantic drama in “500 Days of Summer.” (Let’s overlook “The Pink Panther 2.”)
This adaptation of Tim Tharp’s 2008 novel trims some of the characters – Sutter no longer has a stepfather – but concentrates on the essence of the book: the awkward romance between Sutter and Aimee, who discovers her drunken classmate lying on someone’s front lawn as she delivers newspapers one morning.
Sutter (Miles Teller) sees in her a potential geometry tutor, a patient listener and a relief from the party girls he’s dated. Aimee (Shailene Woodley) sees in him the first boy who’s ever asked her about herself, a popular guy whose attention to her is flattering and maybe a person whose hidden potential can emerge over a long-term relationship.
And so it does, tentatively and painfully. The writers and director James Ponsoldt don’t make things easy for Sutter: He doesn’t miraculously cure his alcoholism, self-pity or commitment-phobia. But a better understanding of his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a touching encounter with his long-absent dad (Kyle Chandler) show him the future he wants to avoid: He doesn’t want to turn into this shadow of a man who haunts bars and can’t bear to spend time with his son.
The movie treats every character with respect. Ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) cuts Sutter loose not out of cruelty but self-protection: He’s dead weight at that point. The sad-eyed, absent-minded dad defends Sutter’s mom and partly acknowledges his own failure. Sutter’s sister (Rocky Mount native Mary Elizabeth Winstead) married into money and quit her job to enjoy a pampered life, but she’s not insensitive or judgmental.
Teller projects Sutter’s superficial buoyancy well, but there’s always something going on behind that façade: You can sense the decent young man behind the cheerful layabout.
Yet the spectacular performance comes from Woodley, last seen as the rebellious daughter of George Clooney in “The Descendants.” She embodies every shy girl in high school whose inner beauty makes her sparkle: self-effacing, more willing to hear about your anxieties than to articulate her own and finishing declarative sentences on a rising note, as if asking permission to hold an opinion.
You want Sutter to end up with her, but only if he’s worthy of this smart, sweet girl. Their journey together, from their first murmured confidences to a fumblingly tender sexual encounter, has an honesty few movies seek or achieve these days.
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