Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), the protagonist of The Spectacular Now, is a zany, fast-talking 18-year-old who riffs on the importance of living in the present — the now. He thinks his ready heart caused the breakup with his beautiful, blonde girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), who found him drinking in his parked car with another girl. Cassidy didn’t understand that he was keeping the girl company while her friend was in a canoe with his buddy — that he was helping the guy get laid! Sutter is so bummed about Cassidy he gets extra-loaded and wakes up at dawn on someone’s lawn, staring up at a girl from his school named Aimee (Shailene Woodley). He has never met her. She’s a studious, forward-looking person who doesn’t party. But she’s very pretty in her unassuming way and obviously into him, so it isn’t long before he’s passing her his flask and kissing her and asking her to the prom. At first you think he’s only using her to make Cassidy jealous. But then, gradually, it seems as if he does like her, at least enough to pull her into his spectacular now — which is, too often, a drunken haze.
Director James Ponsoldt has clearly worked hard to keep the Don’t drink, kids! message from swamping the romance and vice versa. His light touch helps — he puts less emphasis on booze than he did in his last drinking picture, Smashed. Early on, you notice Sutter gulping from a bottle of soda laced with whiskey, but it never dominates the frame. For a while, Sutter’s drinking can even be chalked up to his likable anti-authority shtick. He’s doing his gonzo thing.
Ponsoldt has cast his lead actor shrewdly. Teller didn’t get the attention he deserved as the teen who ran over the heroine’s little son in Rabbit Hole — a minefield of a role he made his own just by saying the lines as if he were thinking them up on the spot. He doesn’t have a trained actor’s diction (he hasn’t purged his Eastern Pennsylvania nasality), and it’s that touch of amateurishness that makes his Sutter more believable. The last thing you want is a song-and-dance kid who looks as if he were cast straight from theater camp, where they’re still talking about his Harold Hill. Ponsoldt lets his scenes with Woodley run long and find their own gentle rhythm.
Woodley played George Clooney’s eldest daughter in The Descendants, but I didn’t recognize her here. Her Aimee is so modest and attentive (and lovely and forgiving) that she seems too good to be true. But Aimee’s longing for someone to protect her — and free her from a domineering mother — is in Woodley’s hands too true to be good. She’s frighteningly vulnerable. It’s unfortunate that Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have omitted one crucial episode from Tim Tharp’s fine novel, in which Aimee gets bombed and smacks Cassidy. You need that scene to see that Sutter’s alcoholism is a contagion — that it’s not just threatening his future but Aimee’s, too. My guess is the filmmakers feared that scene would shove The Spectacular Now too violently out of the teen-romance genre, which is less flexible than it should be. You can bring kids down but not that down.
Otherwise, it’s all good. You’ll have to wait until later this month to see Brie Larson’s breakout performance in the phenomenally moving Short Term 12. Meanwhile, you can admire the shading and intelligence she brings to Cassidy. Kyle Chandler gives an extraordinary performance as Sutter’s long-absent dad, with his macho braggadocio and furtive, tragic eyes. Most teen movies are cocktails of melancholy and elation. This one is best at its most un-transcendent — when it most evokes that period when we never knew what we were supposed to do with the pain.
This review originally appeared in the July 29, 2013 issue of New York magazine.