THE SPECTACULAR NOW Review

If there will be one positive thing remembered about the summer movie season of 2013 it will certainly be the number of coming-of-age tales that were released and received with generally positive criticisms. Beginning with the late April release of Mud and continuing into the heart of the season with both The Way, Way Back and The Kings of Summer (which I missed in theaters, but have heard nothing but great things about and can't wait to catch when it hits home video) and continuing into the final stretch we now have The Spectacular Now. Each of these films have a certain approach to the nostalgia of crossing the threshold from childhood to real maturity, but none of them likely hit you in the heart the way The Spectacular Now does. Naturally, this is a safe assumption as it is the only one of the films I've seen that deals with the budding relationship between two high schoolers and seniors nonetheless. Still, while Mud and The Way, Way Back took a hard look at their central figures finding themselves and realizing who they wanted to be while allowing them to take a step back and evaluate what they need to do to get to where they'd like to be, The Spectacular Now does this by having its young couple help each other accomplish these goals and overcome the obstacles in their way. Director James Ponsoldt who also made last years overlooked, but well-received Smashed again directs his film with such an honest touch and feeling of authenticity that paints a clear picture of who these characters are and why they have become the people they are when we meet them. This touch of truthfulness runs through every word and action that occurs in the film and while the freewheeling, almost improvised tone Ponsoldt implies certainly contributes to how well we are able to accept everything and admire the film for not attempting to glam up what are essentially extremely personal situations it is the lead performances from Miles Teller (Footloose) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) that solidify the heart of the film and how well it connects with its audience. It isn't the heart-wrenching, consistently moving film I expected it to be a la The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it is a well made coming-of-age story that contains performances convincing us we've seen the beginnings of true love.

Amy (Shailene Woodley) delivers newspapers with the help of Sutter (Miles Teller).
As this is as much a film about love and progression it may truly be a film about the self-destructive Sutter Keely (Teller) who, as the film opens, is writing a letter to the dean of admissions at an unspecified college explaining a hardship in his life that he has overcome. As the deterioration of his latest, blissful seeming, relationship with popular girl Cassidy (21 Jump Street's Brie Larson) is fresh on his mind Sutter instinctively resorts to this as the hardship he hasn't completely overcome, but feels confident enough to discuss. Sutter, in all honesty, doesn't care much for school though and he certainly doesn't have an abundance of ambition for going to college or doing what it takes to get there as it becomes clear in the opening montage that he cares for nothing more than living in the moment, being known as the funny guy and the party animal who is always down to have a good time. He is only serious about not being serious and this lifestyle where he is allowed to do as he pleases because he has no father figure and his mom works constantly to support the two of them has led him to this binge of living for nostalgia. He also has an older sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but they aren't overly close and don't see much of each other. This streak must come to an end of course and I think Sutter realizes that early on, if he actually did learn anything from he and Cassidy's break-up it's that he has to at least grow-up in a few ways. It is when he meets Amy Finicky (Woodley) that Sutter's world begins to change. Unlike him, she is a quiet, intelligent girl who doesn't go to parties, doesn't wear make-up and doesn't hang out with the popular crowd. She is his antithesis and as unlikely as it is they come together as a couple what they do best is that they come into each others lives at the necessary time to help balance the good and the bad they see within one another. It is through the small moments that Sutter learns he's not what he thought he was and that Amy is not simply just another girl he will date. It is through Teller's performance that we better understand his arc and gain insight into his realizations.

Giving off the vibe of a young and charismatic Vince Vaughn , Teller brings to the table a completely believable high school charmer whose mouth is sometimes faster than his brain and someone who isn't completely honest with himself until someone forces him to try and confront what they need help with. Sutter is an alcoholic. He can barely go any period of time without a drink and has one handy in nearly every scene of the film while hiding a flask in his pocket to spike his Big Gulp becomes an inside joke between he and Amy. Amy even joins in on Sutter's drinking not seeing it as something necessarily bad, but something that is a part of the person she is truly falling for. Sutter is all at once trying to hold it together while falling apart on the inside. As much as he comes off as the carefree, cool, funny and confident party-guy that everyone likes he is all too eager to make sure everyone shares this opinion and to cement his status by actually being the life of every party he can attend. He makes up a story to cover the pain that is most likely the truth about his father and he even works in a men's fashion store so he himself is always well-dressed and presented in a mature fashion. While I won't say that none of this fools Amy, she is certainly the only one to get past all of that and catch a glimpse at the real Sutter Keely which only makes us root for their relationship all the more. It seems easy for the young couple to veer off course with Amy so reserved and Sutter still swaying between his affinity for Cassidy and trying to figure out what it is he has with Amy and what it could possibly turn into. As much as Teller offers a whirlwind performance (it is the showier role here) it is Woodley who made this individual see the honesty of what was being put on screen. She plays Amy with such humble means, to take a term from the aforementioned film I hoped to compare this to, she is a wallflower and someone who is as apt to understand why she could be good for Sutter as she is simply smitten with him. She's vulnerable without being dumb and she's complex without seeming to try. She is simply put: a real human being and that she comes off this genuine and real is a true credit to the work of the actress behind her.

Amy and Sutter grow close, but their paths may lead them in different directions.
The film eases into its story and successfully adds layer upon layer to its characters while subtly providing justifications for the paths they've chosen and the decisions they might make from this point out. It also does well to not create forced circumstances to make the story more engaging because it does this through the conflicts the characters create out of their personalities. In one of the more heartbreaking scenes we see Sutter have a conversation with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler) where, as the scene progresses, we watch Sutter come to realize who he is through who is father is and what his future is looking like. It is a truly affecting scene and it demonstrates the best of what the film has to offer while being at its characters lowest points. The only issue the story faces is when it decides to throw a wrench in the machine during the third act and then not address it at all or at least recognize it in a fashion that satisfies the audience. There is real tension building in the film and though I have no intention of spoiling what happens in the final act, it is something that gave me a genuine shock and then was passed over as if we took it more seriously than necessary. I was really into the film, I knew these people and I came to care about them and then it all falls apart and wraps up faster than I could have anticipated. It was a rather disappointing conclusion despite the fact I thought I knew where the film was going and though it still didn't necessarily take the road most traveled it ultimately wasn't able to close on such promising beginning and middle sections. This doesn't make The Spectacular Now a bad film it only means that, like its characters, it is flawed and not yet perfected or ready for the world. It is in that fashion a perfect example of being able to encapsulate the mood and moments in life that its characters are experiencing and thus gives us that authentic sense of reality the performances and direction so accurately capture.