THE SPECTACULAR NOW (James Ponsoldt, 2013)
The Ryan Adams song “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is to Be High)” sums up THE SPECTACULAR NOW’s Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), although he’d probably deny that he feels all that down about anything. Sure, he’s upset when his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) breaks up with him, but their relationship remains on generally friendly terms, keeping him confident of their eventual reconciliation. Why wouldn’t she come back to him? He’s the life of the party, and together they are the fun, beautiful couple to be admired at their Georgia high school. As for being high, Sutter drinks a lot, but it isn’t something he views as a problem. It’s what teenagers do.
After a particularly intense night of imbibing Sutter wakes up on the front lawn of fellow senior Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) with no idea where his car is. She gives him a ride, he helps out with her newspaper deliveries, and they make plans to meet for lunch one day at school. Initially Sutter shrugs off their socializing as a favor he’s doing for a nice girl who is tutoring him in geometry. The unassuming Aimee has never had a boyfriend and focuses her energies on academics and helping her mom pay the bills, but as they spend time together, they form a close bond despite their differences in personalities and priorities.
Sutter is a figure familiar to anyone who is or ever been in high school. He’s in his element there and, like Simon Pegg’s character at the start of THE WORLD’S END, wants to stay forever partying with his friends. Teller’s finely shaded portrayal shows that there’s more to Sutter than the gregarious and unserious guy that most people see. Acting with swagger, Sutter can appear like a player and a goof, but Teller also hints at the wounded spirit he’s hiding. His commitment to being a failure becomes all the more tragic when the genuine self he bares to Aimee proves that he can be better than he’s permitting himself to be.
While Aimee is good for Sutter, he may a bad influence on her. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay, adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel, manages the tricky balancing act of creating a relationship that encourages a rooting interest and an awareness that it may be causing more harm than providing benefits. Woodley is marvelous at conveying Aimee’s intellect and shyness while always feeling in control of the risks she takes. Although Aimee is better adjusted than Sutter, she is also limited by the perceptions of herself she carries around in her head. Woodley seems effortless in discovering who Aimee realizes she can be while not giving up her interests and dreams to keep the first boy to flatter her.
Director James Ponsoldt lets key scenes between Sutter and Aimee play out in wide shots and long-ish takes that do wonders for showcasing the chemistry developing between them. The conversation leading to their first kiss and their sex scene advance with tenderness and humor, heightening the real connection of two kids on the verge of adulthood enjoying these moments in time and fumbling toward the future. Their path is funny and painful and ever so believable. With its sharp insights into teenage insecurities and relationships, THE SPECTACULAR NOW reveals itself as an instant coming of age classic.