Movie Review: 'The Spectacular Now' (2013)

It is rare to have happen but sometimes, a movie can make you forget you are watching one. The experience can feel so real and authentic that it transcends the dim theater lights and familiar faces in front of the camera. 

In an unexpected and effortless way, “The Spectacular Now” is one of those rare films. As it absorbs you into a familiar world filled with the lives of recognizable people, living in an everyday town, where the ordinary can take on extraordinary meaning. James Ponsoldt's adaptation manages this by including so many nuances from everyday life.

Based on author Tim Tharp's novel of the same name, "The Spectacular Now" tells the story of high school senior, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller). As he embarks on a well-intentioned “mentorship” of the socially awkward, Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a scholastically gifted senior.

While that story sounds like a rehash of previously exhausted plots, there is something fresh here. These storylines have rarely been explored as poignantly or as gripping, as they are here.

The issues tackled run the gamut. "The Spectacular Now" chronicles Sutter and Amy discovering adulthood and first love. Other issues include parental conflict and alcohol abuse.

Whether the film properly approaches its heavy subject matter is up to debate. Director James Ponsoldt deals with it by acting as a voyeur with the camera lens; attempting to merely capture events as they unfold.

This was also the apparent approach taken in 2013’s “Spring Breakers.” Unlike "The Spectacular Now" that movie did not present the behavior portrayed as having any negative life-altering effects. Both films' stories do share in common their aversion to featuring a moral councilor who attempts to give guidance to the wayward youth. 

In “The Spectacular Now” the approach works better than the formerly mentioned film's, as it correctly highlights the frustrating reality that bystanders, oftentimes, do not get involved. Adults witness reckless behavior by young people, and instead of doing something; they keep their heads firmly planted in the sand.

It is a phenomenon that is painfully accurate. Seeing it presented as it is in movies such as "The Spectacular Now" could potentially spur a viewer to do more than if they were comforted with the false reality of outside intervention. Also known as someone else doing what they will not.

As a whole, the story sidesteps typical Hollywood cliché. Disturbingly portraying Aimee change as Sutter's influence leads to her drinking as well. As is the case with Sutter, no one ever comments about it.

You want it to be the other way around. Amy's sobriety rubbing off on Sutter but that is not realistic, and that is not how the story plays out here. It is turns such as these that make "The Spectacular Now" spectacularly honest.

As for the performances -- they are truly flawless. Led by rising star Miles Teller (a.k.a. the highlight of "Footloose"), he manages a turn that cements his “to-watch” status with his portrayal of Sutter Keely. It is a role he sells with charisma, a free-wheeling spirit, and loads of charm. He interprets Sutter in a way that makes it very easy to understand why people are drawn to him. Sutter is fun-loving and his brutally honest assessments are tinged with humor.

Teller projects a strong sense of sensitivity that shines through, especially well here. Although Sutter is not always doing “good” things. He manages to remain a good guy at heart, who just so happens to make some not so great decisions. Teller's performance is what the whole film hinges on and he delivers with sincerity, laughter, and even heartbreak.

Shailene Woodley (“The Descendents”) gives a masterfully understated and earnest performance as Aimee. Though it seems a role that requires just being an “average girl,” it is more daring than you would think at first glance. Woodley strips off the makeup and overindulgence of Hollywood costuming that unrealistically portrays the typical teen wardrobe.

This is a vulnerable standout role. In a current landscape that has found most actresses playing no outward romantic feelings towards their on-screen counterpart, Woodley opens up. She plays the now scarcely seen trait of new love’s infatuation. Woodley does so with determined fervor and it does not come across desperate; instead conveying a deep devotion. 

Teller and Woodley manage to walk the tight rope of newly minted lovebirds with all of the awkward beginnings of what “first love” entails. Their on-screen connection is strong and it echoes with artistic refinement beyond their years. They are comfortable playing uncomfortable with each other, a magnificent feat.

The supporting cast rounds out the grounded performances that help anchor the film’s atmosphere. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Sutter’s long-suffering mom. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his fragile and materialistic sister.

As her and Sutter's father, Kyle Chandler stars in a surprisingly unlikable role. Chandler is an ace at playing the disquieting nature of humanity and he brings it, in a really powerful portrait of a man that Hollywood is normally too busy romanticizing to approach objectively. 

In the end, the all-too-real archetypes presented give the audience something to hold onto. There is a little piece of you or someone you know in these characters, and that makes them all the more relatable. "The Spectacular Now" has a way of staying with you. Not in a depressing way, rather a really emotionally resonant one that leaves the gears of your mind turning.

As real as the movie feels throughout its run, the ending feels forced towards something somewhat unnatural given the storyline. Considering its hopefulness, you will be hard pressed to really complain about it. A spectacular turn of events. Rating: 8.3/10

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