The romantic comedy may be dead, but the young adult coming-of-age drama, of the John Hughes-ian variety, could be on the cusp of a renaissance. James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now — which had limited screenings at this year's SXSW after an acclaimed run at Sundance — and its genuine, naturalistic leads, leave you with so much earned goodwill that even though it traces a well-worn narrative path, you can’t help but stand up from watching it with a soaring, resounding, “yes!”
Ponsoldt’s last feature, Smashed, starred Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul as alcoholics reeling with a bout of sober living, was praised for its unsensational storytelling. Spectacular Now is also a story about alcohol addiction, but other kinds of dependency as well: of another’s unconditional love, of not wanting blissful moments to pass.
(500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber bring a wistful exuberance to this story, but they gracefully never belie its powerful, dark undercurrent. And like that movie, you can be just as swept up in its playful, rattling dialogue as you are when they bring the whole thing crashing back down to earth. These guys know how to write a whirlwind romance and the brick wall of reality that breaks its gusts.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, who must have graduated from the John Cusack school of charming male leads with honors) is a high school senior luxuriating in his victory lap: he’s the life of the party, has the cool, popular girlfriend (Brie Larson) and can talk his way out of almost anything. Until it all starts to fall apart: he gets abruptly dumped and as his classmates continue forth to graduation, he seems to be stuck in a boozy rut.
And drunken he gets. He wakes up one morning on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), who until then was aware of him, but he never of her. Their serendipitous meeting leads to a relationship marked by a genuine sense of affection, but also a lot of tough love reciprocity: to get her out of her shell and to get him to take a whiff of reality.
The two young leads are what make watching The Spectacular Now feel so joyous — their romance is the right kind of infectious, the kind that feels knowing and admirable, but doesn’t become sappy. And they look like teenagers, too: Woodley masterfully does Aimee as a slightly bumbling nerd who likes graphic novels but is embarrassed by any kind of glamour.
And Teller does something almost magical in making Sutter’s just-perfect aphorisms and sepia-toned come-ons make perfect sense. When Sutter, taking in the view of his classmates with Aimee at their prom, says he loves “living in the moment,” it doesn’t at all seem gooey or sentimental — it seems like exactly something the charismatic and charming Sutter would say. That this movie can defy even its most movie-like tendencies in the same breath is stunning.
It all mounts to an eye-opening and searing road trip, where Sutter, Aimee in tow, track down his estranged father (Kyle Chandler, who finally plays against his bureaucratic type), who’s out living the carefree and over-lubricated life Sutter is slowly drinking himself into. The movie smartly mounts Sutter’s alcoholism as a slowly unmanageable build and in its last scenes, he’s forced to face it.
In its final moments, The Spectacular Now can be devastating and hopeful in separate turns, and ends on a note that I’m curious to see if it becomes divisive. But what does come through clearly is that Ponsoldt has found a great outlet, by way of a sweet, endlessly charming teen romance, to explore how relationships can push us not only into becoming the people we’re afraid of becoming, but also to realize the kind of person we’ve always been.