Silver Screen: The Spectacular Now ****
Teen romance gets the grownup movie treatment in The Spectacular Now, a small-scale drama that distinguishes itself with realism and deceptive levity. It hits plenty of familiar beats, but director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) imbues them with such texture and nuance that they seem new again.
Sutter (Miles Teller) is a fun-loving student on the verge of graduating from high school-- or perhaps not graduating. The possibility of sticking around for a fifth year doesn’t conflict with his live-for-the-moment philosophy. He’s happy to drink his way through another year of class and after-school duties at a haberdashery (operated by Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk), and his single mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is too busy to keep track of him.
What all boys in movies with a case of arrested development need is to meet a pretty girl, which Sutter does. Here it’s Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a pretty but unconfident girl on the fringes of the social scene. Sutter is the life of parties she doesn’t even get invited to. They strike up an unlikely relationship that baffles his friends, who suspect it’s a rebound fling, or a way to get attention from his ex (Brie Larson).
As their romance plays out, Sutter struggles with his increasingly out-of-control drinking and his issues with his absent father (Kyle Chandler). It sounds heavy, but the script from Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, from Tim Tharp’s novel, doesn’t dwell in pathos. Sutter is a relentlessly positive guy, as much to convince himself that everything is fine as to prove it to everyone else. That attitude pervades the film, which is good humored even through its darker turns.
It’s a tough balance Ponsoldt is trying to strike, and he couldn’t do it without Teller, who gives a fantastic performance. He’s a natural-born charmer, and when the character could easily be perceived as glib, Teller makes him genuine. When he could become a self-destructive sad-sack, Teller finds sympathy.
The Spectacular Now is Sutter’s movie-- it’s more bildungsroman than rom-com-- so somewhat inevitably Teller dominates the screen. In almost any other movie it’s Woodley who would get the attention for pulling off the rare feat of being believable as both the ugly duckling, or at least the homespun and slightly unpopular girl, and the inevitable beauty who emerges. She and Teller are wonderful together, and they’re working in front of one of the year’s best supporting casts. Odenkirk and Jennifer Jason Lee convey a lot with just a little screentime, while Chandler gets the movie’s best, most uncomfortable scene.
Ponsoldt works much better with subtlety than melodrama, which is perhaps why the movie’s final act is a little unbalanced. The screenplay includes a twist that seems to come from a different, more hysterical movie. It’s a big moment that comes out of nowhere, yet recedes almost immediately as the film settles back into its more gentle rhythm. It’s an odd deviation that’s misguided but doesn’t derail the film, although it’s increasingly perplexing in retrospect.
In a summer overrun with busted blockbusters and epic-scale calamities, a handful of smaller movies redeemed the season: Before Midnight, The Way Way Back, Blue Jasmine, and The Spectacular Now. They’re so good you don’t even mind that the 3D isn’t very effective.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.