The Spectacular Now aims much higher than any run-of-the-mill teen romance and its success in achieving a film that goes beyond the limits of genre is to be highly commended, yet there are problems in the movie and it would make the film an excellent study for any film theory class. Because this is a special film in many ways, this review contains spoilers, so beware if you haven’t seen the movie.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a high school senior who is the life of the party. His girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), just happens to be the coolest girl in school. He sits down at his computer to answer an essay question for a college entrance exam. What was your greatest challenge and how did you face it?
His answer centers around how Cassidy has just dumped him. Always helpful, he had been trying to set up a friend with a girl, but she happened to come with another girl and he just happened to be sitting with her in his car at lakeside drinking when Cassidy discovered them. He’s almost always drinking, but he doesn’t see that as a problem and he figures that he’ll get Cassidy back pretty quickly, but she has already hooked up with the star athlete, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) and has left Sutter in her dust.
He goes out to party and ends up enormously drunk. The next morning, he is awakened by a girl who finds him laying in someone’s yard passed out. The girl, Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) is also a senior at his school, although he doesn’t remember her name. A semi-geeky girl who likes science fiction and graphic novels, Aimee is way too normal for Sutter, but he can’t find his car so he helps her do her mother’s paper route and ends up having a lot of fun. He asks her out to lunch, then to a party. He still isn’t over Cassidy, but she can no longer deal with his lack of ambition and drinking. Aimee, who has never had a boyfriend, is just happy that he likes her. He might be a good student, but he just doesn’t care. There is a certain ennui about him, even though he puts up a good front. Part of his problem is that his mother, Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a single parent and she keeps him apart from his father. Sutter remembers playing baseball with his dad and completely blames his mother for “kicking him out of the house.” His sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is married to a lawyer, doesn’t really care about their father.
Aimee falls in love with Sutter, but he continues to drift, fantasizing about getting back together with Cassidy. He gradually comes to love Aimee as well, but he does not think he is good enough for her. The sad thing is that he’s right. Sutter doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s drifting through high school, he doesn’t want next year to happen, and he doesn’t want to make any plans. In a scene with Cassidy, she begs him to think about the future, but he tells her that all that matters is the “now,” enjoying each moment as it happens.
Accepted into a college in Philadelphia, Aimee tells him that she can’t go because her mother won’t let her so they make a pact: if Aimee will stand up to her mother about going to college, then Sutter will confront his own mother about seeing his dad. He asks her to the prom and gets her to start drinking alcohol, giving her a personalized flask when he picks her up. Later, she tells him that she has decided to go to Philadelphia and tells him he should go there with her, that they could get a place together and get jobs while she goes to school. He doesn’t commit himself to it, but he also doesn’t tell her “no.” Marcus confronts Sutter about Cassidy, but Sutter tells him that there’s nothing between them. When Marcus wishes he could make her laugh like Sutter does, Sutter advises him that all he needs to do is relax, to live in the “now.”
When Aimee badgers him into investigating his father, Holly finally gives him the phone number. Sutter calls his dad (Kyle Chandler) and arranges a meeting, bringing Aimee with him when he goes to visit, but when he discovers that his father is an alcoholic skirt chaser, he sees his own future. Depressed, he drinks heavily as he drives them back home. Aimee tries to comfort him, telling him that she loves him, but he belligerently tells her to get out of the car. When she does, she gets hit by another car.
Although she’s not seriously injured, Sutter’s depression reaches a whole new level. They graduate, but he feels no joy in it. She waits at the bus station for him to join her, but he drives by and lets her go off on her own. Drunk again, he plows down the mailbox in front of his house and gets into a violent argument with his mother. When he screams at her that she doesn’t love him, she comforts him and tells him that he is a gentle and giving man. Sutter breaks down and sobs in her arms.
Confronting the computer screen and the question of what his greatest challenge is and how he overcame it, he types in a confession that he is his own greatest problem and that it is a problem he must solve every day going forward, finally recognizing that the “now” will come again tomorrow. In the final scene, he joins Aimee in Philadelphia.
Even though this film is riddled with problems, there are also many things to like about it. There is a simplicity in the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adapted from the novel of the same name by Tim Tharp) that is quite engaging and the realistic approach of director James Ponsoldt keeps the viewer constantly involved in the story. Sutter is a complex person and I have to give high marks to the creative team for making such a deeply layered character and wonderfully consistent throughout the entire film. Surely, the temptation to make the film a pure romance must have been quite strong, but the movie works hard to keep Sutter real and to deal realistically with his problem, which is immense for a boy of his age.
It is dramatic, it contains a theme that is built and explored in a way that many other films should aspire to, it is very carefully written and well-thought out.
In addition, there are a couple of excellent performances in the movie by Jennifer Jason Leigh (I didn’t even recognize her) as Sutter’s mother and Kyle Chandler as his father. Each of these actors brings a depth and a reality to their roles that goes even beyond the well-crafted script. All of the other supporting actors do a good job as well.
The problems are mostly in the production, but one problem in the writing really holds the movie back. There is nothing likable about Sutter. As I watched the movie, it was easy to identify him as the protagonist and to feel a certain amount of angst for him, but the writers did nothing to help me like him or really care about him. My first instinct was to blame the performance of Miles Teller, but I realized at some point that the story should have shown something else to make me care about what happened to him. That was missing.
Shailene Woodley gives a fine performance as Aimee, but I believe she may have been miscast. Given the beauty of the actress and Aimee’s terrific personality, I found it simply impossible to believe that she never had a boyfriend or that she was a wall flower. Girls that special rise to the top because those around them inevitably recognize what’s great about them and give them a special position in the social order. In fact, Aimee is so special that it is really difficult to believe that in her isolation she could love someone like Sutter.
In his desire to make the movie realistic, I believe that Ponsoldt must have encouraged Teller and Woodley to improvise much of their dialogue because it seems so genuine, however, the constant use of “awesome” and “amazing” and “cool” becomes almost funny at some points. Sure, it’s probably realistic. One can imagine real teens talking this way, but it sure makes them seem a lot less intelligent. There should be an argument on this point because the question of realistic dialogue comes up over and over again. My own personal opinion is that the clever screenwriter will use just enough teen clichés to make the dialogue believable, but back off before it becomes a running gag. I think what happened in this movie was improvisation on the actor’s parts. I don’t know that for a fact, but it feels that way. Good and bad.
The ending probably should have been retooled as well.
Although the scene of Sutter writing his new answer is effective, I never had the feel of a real denouement, a crystal moment of realization in which Sutter knows how he needs to change his life and dedicates himself to doing so. Maybe it is more realistic that he has a hint of what he needs to do and points himself in the right direction, but in the interval between breaking down with his mother and writing his new answer, I would have liked to see something that really gave him a positive direction.
Even given all of these problems, I still recommend this film, not only to film students, but to people who want to see a teen romance that has some backbone to it, a film that challenges itself to do better and makes a very positive footprint in the right direction.
The good outweighs the bad.