A boy meets a girl, and then something begins. Yes, this is a cliché indeed, but “The Spectacular Now” brings fresh air into that cliché we have encountered in countless movies about young teenager couples, and it grows on us through its young couple both smart and interesting. They only talk with each other at first while nothing much happens, but that is enough for us to see and feel the mutual attraction between them, and the movie handles their relationship with a considerable amount of care and intelligence. Needlessly to say, this is something we do not come across often in these days, and I enjoyed it wholeheartedly.
Like many teenagers near the next important stage of their lives, our adolescent hero Sutter Keely(Miles Teller) has been wondering about what he should do next, but this amiable boy chooses to keep his carefree attitude on the surface while trying to ignore all the worries and insecurities inside him. The movie opens with his long answer to one of the questions in the online application form for college enrollment, but it seems he is not very interested in going to college; he is not sure about why he should, and he rather wants to enjoy the present for now although he knows he must decide something for himself sooner or later.
His days at the high school are numbered as the graduation day is coming, and he frequently drinks as much as I did during my last summer days of the undergraduate course at KAIST. Once I saw that I did not have to prepare myself for another load of lectures to come as before, my summer nights were frequently filled with 3-4 liters of beer at the campus bar(I could go further if it was right after my routine gym exercise), and the scene of drunken Sutter driving his car at night made me reminisce on how many times I rode my poor bicycle with a high level of alcohol in my blood.
Anyway, in the next morning, Sutter finds himself lying on the lawn in front of somebody’s house while his car is not around him, and that is how he happens to meet Aimee Finicky(Shailene Woodley), a girl to whom he has never paid attention although she and he go to the same high school. She is delivering morning papers around the neighbourhood instead of her mother, so they do the delivery job together as looking for Sutter’s car, and they get to know a bit about each other in the process. He is soon invited to her home to know more about her, and a certain feeling between them grows more especially when they have some private time at a party in the forest. The camera just keeps looking at them as they walk together for a long time, but their ongoing conversation between them is fun to listen to as it also becomes clear to us that they will go to the next base sooner or later.
While Sutter is Aimee’s first boyfriend, Sutter had a girlfriend named Cassidy(Brie Larson), who recently broke up with him. It initially looks like it was merely caused by a silly misunderstanding, but it turns out there was a more serious problem in their relationship, and one of the fresh aspects in the movie is that Cassidy is not one of those mean, selfish girls you may expect from lesser teenager movies. While she is now meeting the other boy, she considers restarting the relationship with Sutter, but her attempt only reveals to both of them that she cannot get what she seriously wants from him(no, it’s not sex), and the movie has an unexpected moment when Sutter is confronted by Cassidy’s current boyfriend Marcus(Dayo Okeniyi), who turns out to be a lot more sensible and serious than his first impression to us.
The director James Ponsoldt keeps surprising us with very good moments while freely rolling the romance between Sutter and Aimee amid different moods. There is an expected sex scene between them around the middle of the story, but Ponsoldt and his two lead actors handle this crucial scene admirably while not resorting to cheap laughs. Both of them certainly know about sex, but they are still inexperienced though they wisely use a condom, and their tentative approach to each other is presented with frankness without gratuitous nudity.
The adapted screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, which is based on Tim Tharp’s novel, deftly juggles many other things within its short running time, and one of its most precise moments comes from when Sutter visits his absent father(Kyle Chandler) later in the story as he promised to Aimee before. What he eventually learns from this visit results in a crucial turn in the story, and how he and Aimee deals with that is touchingly mature and thoughtful.
The charm of the movie depends a lot on its performances, which are fabulous to say the least. Miles Teller is a likable kid who is far better than he thinks he is, and he quickly wins our affection right from the start. Shailene Woodley, who was previously praised for her good supporting turn in “The Descendants”(2011), is lovely as a shy, observant girl getting to look more charming in our view as well as Sutter’s view, and the unaffected chemistry between Woodley and Teller makes their scenes constantly watchable. The movie also allows enough space for its supporting cast; while Larson and Okeniyi are good as the adolescent characters we come to like more than expected, we also have a bunch of veteran actors like Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Andre Royo, and Kyle Chandler as the adult characters influencing Sutter in one way or another, and they imbue their respective characters with considerable emotional depth in their brief scenes.
“The Spectacular Now” is one of the nice surprises in this year, and it will probably be remembered along with other good films about adolescent romance and growth including “Say Anything…”(1989) or “Flirting”(1991). Its young characters really feel like real teenagers, and they do grow along the story – and we clearly see that they become wiser and better in the end, while there are still many things to learn in their next spectacular nows to come.