Considering all the bells and whistles (and explosions and car chases) that go into summer movies, it’s amazing when a film reminds us that all it takes to engage an audience is a couple of characters we care about. That’s the beauty of The Spectacular Now—which, indeed, has nothing spectacular about it, except for the spectacular charm of its two leads.
Sutter (Miles Teller) is a seemingly happy-go-lucky college senior. He’s the life of the party—everyone’s friend, the sort of guy who talks to teachers about his academic shortcomings in such a chummy way that they become co-conspirators in improving his grades.
Sutter also always has a flasket of alcohol at the ready (or a Big Gulp spiked with booze.) His alcoholism is not treated in a breathless, After-School Special sort of way, but rather like a symptom of a secret problem with Sutter’s sense of self that the film will eventually reveal.
As the film starts, Sutter has just been dumped by his beautiful girlfriend. He goes on a bender and ends up passed out on a neighbor’s lawn. He is discovered in the morning by Aimee (Shailene Woodley), who has awakened early to do her mother’s paper route, as she often does.
Aimee is sort of the anti-Sutter. Quiet, dutiful, hardworking—she’s biding her time before college. While Sutter basks in the moment, the “spectacular now” of the title—Aimee looks to the future. She knows these are not her best years—at least she sure as hell hopes they’re not.
At first, the attention Sutter lavishes on Aimee is a kind of chivalry, a high school version of noblesse oblige. Aimee, a virgin who has never even kissed a boy, let alone had a boyfriend, falls hard. And Sutter’s best friend, all too familiar with Sutter’s mercurial ways, warns him about breaking her heart—but Sutter insists that he actually likes her.
Eventually, he realizes this is true.
Both young actors are really remarkable here.
I’d been following Teller’s career since I first saw him holding his own opposite Nicole Kidman in 2010’s Rabbit Hole. Later, he stole the show right out from under the comely leads in Footloose. He’s not especially good-looking—he has a scar on his chin from a scary car crash several years ago and a slightly bent nose—but he’s tall and athletic, with jet black hair and a fast grin. What he also is, quite effortlessly it seems, is likeable—the ease of his charm is positively infectious. (He reminds me, particularly in this film, of a young John Cusack, circa the Say Anything days.)
As for Woodley, she proves here that The Descendants was no fluke. As a serious young girl who is besotted by (possibly) the wrong boy, she’s incredibly touching and relatable. I’ve actually never seen this character in a movie before—she’s no blushing ingénue; rather strong and smart and sensible, if slightly thrown off course by the rush of young love.
The film sags a bit in its second half, when it focuses on Sutter’s father (Kyle Chandler) and the reasons behind the teen’s alcoholism and live-in-the-moment ethos. The more stripped down the movie is—when it just focuses on the two young leads taking a walk or a having lunch—the more I liked it. How incredibly darn refreshing.