‘THE SPECTACULAR NOW’ ★★★★
Sutter Keely Miles Teller
Aimee Finecky Shailene Woodley
Cassidy Brie Larson
Holly Keely Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Sarah Keely Jennifer Jason Leigh
Thomas Keely Kyle Chandler
A24 presents a film directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, based on the book by Tim Tharp. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated R (for alcohol use, language and some sexuality, all involving teens). Opens Friday at AMC River East, Landmark Century and CineArts Evanston.
Updated: September 10, 2013 7:14PM
In “The Spectacular Now,” the high school seniors look and talk like actual high school seniors. (Even though the leads are in their 20s.) Nobody gets bitten by a radioactive spider, nobody falls in love with a vampire, nobody throws a sex-crazed party at which multiple felonies are committed and the whole thing ends with an automobile landing in a swimming pool.
When there’s a scene involving a parent, a teacher or a boss at a part-time job, these adult characters are not buffoons or comic foils. They’re world-weary, but most of them are deeply concerned about the teenagers in their lives.
The young actor Miles Teller can strain your patience with his glib delivery and cocky mannerisms, and indeed there’s a lot of that stuff in “The Spectacular Now,” but those are just the opening notes of a fully realized, ultimately deeply affecting performance — easily the best of Teller’s career.
Teller plays Sutter Keely, a popular high school senior who’s been having the time of his life for four years — always the life of the party, always quick with the joke, so funny and charismatic he’s got a great-looking girlfriend and he’s considered one of the “in” crowd, even though he’s not a jock or some dreamboat. And he’s certainly not much of a student.
But then Sutter gets dumped by his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), who still loves him but is alarmed by his lack of ambition and his increasing reliance on the flask he always keeps handy. He goes on a bender that ends with him passed out on a front lawn, unaware of what happened to his car or how he got there.
Enter the unusually named Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a sweet, smart, shy girl who finds Sutter on that lawn and is relieved to learn he’s not dead. Aimee agrees to let Sutter accompany her on her morning paper route. That way Sutter might find his car.
Aimee’s one of those girls nobody notices in high school, but you can tell she’s going to be a rock star in college, as soon as her self-confidence matches her intelligence, her natural beauty and her heartbreaking sincerity. But her high school years have been so unremarkable that Sutter is just now learning her name as they’re on the verge of graduation.
To Sutter’s credit, it doesn’t take him long to see Aimee’s potential. She’s selfless (the paper route is actually her mother’s “job,” but Aimee takes care of it most mornings). She’s quirky, as evidenced by the kitschy decor and eclectic reading material in her room. She’s intelligent. She’s honest. Never has a teenager in the movies said “Awesome!” so many times without it ever sounding anything but … awesome.
What beautiful work by Shailene Woodley, who announced her star presence as George Clooney’s daughter in “The Descendants.” It’s a wonderfully written role, and Woodley is brilliant in every second she is onscreen.
Sutter starts romancing Aimee, telling his best friend and himself he’s “helping her out.” Aimee’s best friend sees through Sutter and wants him to buzz off. Cassidy does that thing ex-girlfriends sometimes do — she immediately kick-starts a romance with the school’s leading jock, but she still IM’s Sutter and tells him how much she misses the good times.
But, like every other character in this movie, Cassidy is not a blonde b-word caricature. She’s finding her way, and she’s got some good points about Sutter’s shortcomings.
What’s so remarkable about this movie is the natural, unforced feel to scenes big and small. Whether Sutter’s taking a casual walk with Aimee or having an epic confrontation with his mother, “The Spectacular Now” makes us feel as if we’re eavesdropping on real life. There are times when you want to shake Sutter and tell him to get his act together before he loses Aimee. There are times when you want to tell Aimee she should get away from this guy before his drinking problem becomes their drinking problem. (Sutter’s prom gift to Aimee: her very own, engraved flask.)
There are also times when you are rooting so much for these two. With Aimee struggling to emerge from her domineering (and never seen) mother, with Sutter learning some hard truths about the absentee father he worships, these two need to realize they can bring out the best in each other. They deserve a happy ending.
Adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber from Tim Tharp’s novel (which I really want to read after seeing this film), directed with just enough indie and just enough polish by James Ponsoldt, “The Spectacular Now” will bring you back to that time in your life when you were trying to soak in every moment because everyone told you there’s nothing better than your last year in high school. But you were terrified because you were afraid everyone was right.
Here is the best American movie of the year so far.