There are a lot of virtues to be found in The Spectacular Now, but perhaps one of the most satisfying elements is the honest writing of the characters. This is one of those movies where the viewer can't help but marvel at how authentic everything feels, even when it would be so easy for the script to veer into more common explorations of first love and high school cliques. As I left the theatre, I couldn't help but think of all the ways this film would be very different if it existed in the universes of Can't Hardly Wait or She's All That. It's become common to invoke comparisons with John Hughes' films when it comes to more nuanced portrayals of teenagers. I wouldn't draw too many parallels between Hughes' better films and The Spectacular Now myself, but this film is impressive enough in its own way.
This Sundance hit is directed by James Ponsoldt from a script adapted by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, from the Tim Tharp novel of the same name. Adding to the strong pedigree is a fantastic cast, toplined by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, backed up by a murder's row of excellent supporting actors. Ponsoldt is coming off of a writing and directing turn on last year's Smashed, which made an excellent case for Mary Elizabeth Winstead being a long-underrecognized talent. (Winstead shows up here as well, in an all-too-brief turn as Teller's sister.) In a strange way, The Spectacular Now is a natural companion with Smashed, as both deal with alcoholism with more nuance and insight than the vast majority of films that address the topic.
The film is a coming of age story, but it would also be accurate to call it a film about an alcoholic that never invokes the word "alcoholism." Teller's Sutter is in a funk after being dumped by his girlfriend (the increasingly ubiquitious Brie Larson) and after a wild night of getting it out of his system, he's discovered on a stranger's lawn by classmate Aimee. It's a surprisingly well-handled Meet Cute that transitions rather easily to the two of them bonding during a drive. The next thing we knew, Sutter is offering to have lunch with Aimee the next day at school.
They're from different worlds in terms of their school identities, but one of the early smart choices that the script makes is it doesn't fall into the cliche view of high school that only exists in movies. There was a period during the late 90s and early 2000s where every teen movie had a scene where a character broke down the cartography of the school cafeteria clique-by-clique: the jocks, the nerds, the burnouts, the popular kids, the atheletes and so on. A lesser script would have made Sutter big man on campus, wearing a letter jacket and surrounded by football playing meatheads. Meanwhile Aimee would have been an arty nerd with glasses and overalls.
Was anyone's high school experience THAT on-the-nose? My school certainly had people that fell into those categories, but few were rigidly in one catagory and there was a lot of overlap in cliques. In weaker teen movies, you can spot the archetypes just by looking at them. Here, Aimee and Sutter don't immediately look like they belong to different worlds. They're teens, not archetypes.
Sutter's popular, but that's the result of a big heart rather than more archaic notions of high school infamy. Yes, the hot girls know he's the one to come to to score booze, but his best friend looks like a textbook example of the "geek" stereotype and one of the first things we see Sutter do is try to set his friend up with a "regulation hottie" (to borrow a term from Mean Girls.) It's hard not to like this guy, and Teller's charisma really helps sell that this is the kind of guy who'd make friends easily. There's an ease and a confidence to his interactions that almost effortlessly disarms whoever he's talking to.
There's also a small moment that underscores how un-conceited he is. When a fellow classmate asks Sutter for advice in how to deal with a woman, Sutter is shocked advice would be needed, pointing out the guy is class president, popular and the founder of a charity. Sutter's mother is right when she says he has a big heart, as he not only seems to see the best in people, but he's often a catalyst for bringing it out.
Because Sutter is life of the party, it doesn't initially seem that odd to us when we see him drinking. Underage drinking isn't exactly a revelation, and especially in teen movies, where half the time writers barely pay lip service to the legalities. But over time, we notice that it's rare we go more than two scenes without being reminded of Sutter's flash. He drinks at parties, he drinks on the job, he drinks while hanging with Aimee.
Sutter's girlfriend seemingly dumps him because she catches him in a car with another girl. He explains it's an innocent misunderstanding - and it is - so our impulse is to say "what a bitch!" with regard to the ex. But about midway through the film, the ex regards Sutter and his new girlfriend and privately asks, "Have you turned her into a lush yet?"
If you're looking for a moment that redefines the entire film, it might well be that single line of dialogue.
Aimee has been hanging out more and more with Sutter, and at first we feel like we're seeing the typical story where that one perfect guy recognizes the beauty in this girl that every one else has overlooked. There's a brief stretch of the story where Sutter seems poised to be the male equivalent of Natalie Portman's Garden State character - the free spirit who awakens the hero's drive and passion. But the script doesn't take that path, and it doesn't make the mistake of turning Sutter into a female fantasy of that perfect guy who will see her for what she is.
The sweetness of those earlier moments is tempered by other scenes where Sutter can't help but stare at his ex across a party, or chat with her on IM. We see Aimee blossoming under Sutter's attention, but we also fear the moments when Sutter screws up, goes back to the ex and stomps Aimee's innocent heart.
That moment never comes. But do you know what we do get plenty of? Sutter introducing Aimee to alcohol. Sutter buying her a flask. The two of them sharing drinks even as they bond. Instead, we start to understand that Sutter's ex may have dumped him not over an imaginary indiscretion, but because of his lack of direction and his over-reliance on the booze. Indeed, "Have you turned her into a lush yet?" is a question that makes one realize perhaps the ex-girlfriend feared that's what her relationship with Sutter would do to her.
It's poignant to see moments that demonstrate how Sutter is so good for Aimee and yet also so bad for her at the same time. Aimee's deflowering is one of the more beautiful and honest depictions of such a scene in recent film history. There's an intimacy to the performances and the direction that allows the audience to get swept up with the young love without feeling awkward at witnessing their first consummation. When moments like that are played for laughs or titillation, it's easy to distance oneself from the scene. This scene doesn't take that out - going straight for the raw, honest emotion.
Even as Sutter brings out the best in her by encouraging her to be more independent, we can't help but notice her own flask becomes more ever-present in scene after scene. I don't believe Aimee is an alcoholic, nor do I believe Sutter's drinking makes him a bad person. They genuinely love each other, which makes it all the more difficult to accept the conclusion that they might not be right for each other.
I don't wish to delve too deeply into spoilers for the end, but this next paragraph will spill a few details. It's interesting to me to contrast this film's ending with Ponsoldt's Smashed. The earlier film concluded that no matter how much Winstead's character loved her husband, she was never going to be able to deal her alcoholism in that environment. She had to move on from him, and that was depicted as the right choice. The Spectacular Now flips that somewhat, having Sutter push Aimee away for what he tells himself is her own good. And yet, the ending makes that split less definitive. While The Spectacular Now is a great love story, there's an argument to be made that it's a spiritual prequel to Smashed. Does that comparison diminish the happy overtones of the ending? Perhaps, but it does not diminish the film iteself.
The Spectacular Now is a film that left me with a lot to say - a unfortunate rarity these days. The more I think back on individual moments in the film, the more in awe I am of all the creative collaborators involved - writers, actors and the director. As I said yesterday on twitter, if Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber aren't nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, something will have definitely gone amiss. Teller and Woodley also do fantastic work, but I fear their youth and the lack of showiness to their roles will lead to them being overlooked.
I feel pretty confidant in saying that The Spectacular Now is all but a lock for my Ten Best of 2013 List and if you're a fan of strong characters and compelling drama, it'll find a place on yours too.