THE SPECTACULAR NOW Review

4 stars

Apart from “The Spectacular Now” being — dare I say it — spectacular, it’s so natural, unforced and wonderfully affecting. For a coming-of-age story of high schoolers with the usual tropes (hookups, prom and graduation), it feels nothing like your typical entry into the genre. Director James Ponsoldt’s second film since his Mary Elizabeth Winstead showcase “Smashed” is a leap forward in craft and no less draws phenomenal performances from two central characters. Here it’s Miles Teller of “Project X” and “Rabbit Hole” and Shailene Woodley of “The Descendants” who will both appear in the upcoming YA adaptation “Divergent.” Their chemistry feels almost impossibly organic within long shots giving each scene an immediate intimacy and room for these actors to breathe. They, and this film, are a marvel.

The script comes from “(500) Days of Summer” scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who adapted from a novel by Tim Tharp. The story centers on Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), the most well known guy in high school whose reputation isn’t exactly clean. He’s fun-loving and endlessly charismatic but reckless and bordering on alcoholism. But he knows about every party and knows everyone at them. One morning Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) finds him passed out on a front lawn after yet another drunken night. He offers to help with her paper route because he needs to be driven around the neighborhood to find his car. So begins their mutually beneficial relationship, but as the film casually and soulfully moves them along, the line becomes blurred as to who’s helping whom. 

Sutter believes he’s doing Aimee a favor by paying her attention and inviting her to parties; he gets geometry tutoring in return. He gives her the courage to stand up to her mother and tell her she wants to go away to college; she gives him the courage to stand up to his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and ask to see his estranged father (Kyle Chandler). It’s unclear whether Sutter is looking for friendship or courtship from Aimee, but she falls hard for the guy who always has a flask at hand. Sutter’s ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) watches as he takes Aimee in. “Have you turned her into a lush yet?” she asks him.

Sutter is sincere but indecisive and can turn on a dime. His motto is living in the moment, soaking up the ever-present now and not worrying about the future. But at such a pivotal life moment, that ideology keeps a person coasting in neutral — the problem is that Sutter is complacent doing just that. Aimee has hopes for the future, and her relationship with Sutter transforms into something parasitic threatening to drag her down. Their complex push and pull is the driving force of “The Spectacular Now,” a film which ultimately transcends its own high school confines. It’s about being caught at the edge of growing up, taking responsibility and discovering whether you’re going to land on the right foot when you cross to the other side.
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