Everyone knows a kid like Sutter Keely. Bright and gregarious, he thinks he can talk his way into a girl’s pants or out of trouble. Kids like Sutter never really excel at school – they think it’s a party, not an opportunity for education – so coming of age is foreign to them (or at least difficult). The Spectacular Now is the story of how Sutter drunkenly fights against adulthood. It is also the story of how, in spite of himself, he falls in love. Director James Ponsoldt has the patience to watch his characters talk and grow, so there’s an organic, gentle transition from breezy comedy to serious drama.
When we first meet Sutter (Miles Teller), he’s working on a college admission essay. He uses the prompt as an opportunity to rail against his ex-girlfriend (Brie Larson), who left him feeling really bummed (he’s not heartbroken). Sutter may only be a high school senior, but he’s already a drunk, so his solution is convince cute twenty-something girls to buy him shots. It’s still early when Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) finds him on her lawn. He blacked out – Ponsoldt literally lingers on a black screen as Sutter transitions from drunken glory to the morning after – and he does not know how he got there. She has a paper route to do, and Sutter convinces her that he should come along (the route will help since he doesn’t know where his car is). This is how their tentative romance begins – Sutter flirts with other girls, denying his feelings for Aimee, while she falls for him hard – and soon the trappings of high school drift away. Now Sutter and Aimee are in each other’s lives, and neither one is quite equipped to handle the responsibility.
While Ponsoldt’s direction never calls attention to itself, some sequences are shot with warm skill. There is a lengthy scene where Sutter and Aimee go for a walk in the park, and Sutter’s flask drifts in out of frame, forcing us to question whether their chemistry is genuine or merely boozy. The shot lasts for a few minutes, forcing Teller and Woodley to speak without interruption, and there’s effortless naturalism to their dialogue. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber include all the abrupt pauses and asides that accompany actual conversation, which is a roundabout way to get us to care, truly care, about these characters. The other terrific sequence is where Sutter and Aimee have sex. There is no attempt for false eroticism, and Ponsoldt focuses on the fumbling particulars of the act. It’s kind of miraculous how a long sex scene – again at least a few minutes – can be funny and suddenly quite serious, suggesting that Ponsoldt and his screenwriters have a deep understanding of behavior. It’s as if they don’t want to fail their characters.
Sutter and Aimee do not exist in a vacuum, of course, and part of The Spectacular Now’s charm is its authentic, lived-in details. When Sutter has an argument with his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and she complains about a double-shift, we can also hear the countless other arguments they’ve had before. Still, the setting has more nuance when Sutter and Aimee are at school. He’s a popular kid, more or less, and his reputation certainly precedes him. There’s a brief, funny scene where Aimee’s friend chides Sutter for playing games with her (at first, she’s absolutely correct). Aimee is a better student, and while the movie makes note of their differences, it also creates situations where simple labels like “smart kid” and “lush” no longer matter. There are several scenes where Aimee’s earnest conversations with Sutter are downright heartbreaking. For all the fantastic work they do – The Spectacular Now is full of subtle, perfect performances – Woodley steals the show with her aching vulnerability. Experience is the only thing that can undo her mistakes, so there’s a feeling of helplessness as she indulges her romantic fantasies.
Ponsoldt is no stranger to the topic of alcoholism; last year’s Smashed was about a woman who upends her life after she chooses sobriety. Booze and Sutter’s high-functioning inebriation are in the background of every scene, whether Sutter is behind the wheel or when he passive-aggressively forces Aimee to join him. The people who know Sutter well, including his sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and his boss (Bob Odenkirk), have a small, important moments where they reach out to him but not too far. No one actually says Sutter has a drinking problem; Ponsoldt and his screenwriters (correctly) realize Sutter would shut down anyone who accused him of alcoholism. What’s interesting, however, is how Sutter’s decision to drink gets wrapped in the bigger decisions about his life. The movie conflates the two until Sutter reaches his breaking point: he brings Aimee along when he reunites with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler, in a fearless performance), and the aftermath of their reunion is disastrous.
With its end-of-school setting and a hero who’s regularly called by full name, The Spectacular Now bears a superficial resemblance to Say Anything. But Lloyd Dobler is not like Sutter Keely, and Ponsoldt is uninterested in a remake of a timeless classic. Ponsoldt has his own story to tell, and it develops in ways that are sometimes familiar, sometimes surprising. Although it has its share, The Spectacular Now is not merely a romance. It is story about two basically good, happy young people, and how they cannot see that they’re hurting each other. A poignant ending is not something filmmakers can take for granted; poignancy must be earned. Ponsoldt and his team earn it, and what they leave out is just as important as what they leave in. I genuinely cannot wait to hear what everyone thinks of the ending. Not only will be an interesting discussion, but it’ll confirm my belief that it’s difficult (and worth it) to love Sutter Keely and Aimee Fincicky.