[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The Spectacular Now opens today in limited release.]
“Live in the moment” is a nice platitude and a crappy life philosophy. Vivacity is all well and good. We should appreciate the present, but we can’t live only for the present. We have to think about tomorrow because we’re probably going to be there. In his wonderful new film The Spectacular Now, director James Ponsoldt explore the live-for-the-moment mentality with an authentic and earnest look at high school emotions, anxiety about the future, and first love. Led by extraordinary performances from stars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now is a thoroughly charming and surprisingly powerful coming-of-age story about the fear of looking ahead and the seductive safety of living in the present.
Sutter Keely (Teller) is the life of the party. He knows everyone’s name and always has access to booze. After breaking up with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), Sutter drunkenly drives home only to awake on the front lawn of classmate Aimee Finicky (Woodley). Aimee is pretty, but shy and removed from the popular crowd. Sutter’s attempts at a rebound quickly turn into genuine feelings towards Aimee. Their relationship blossoms as they become drinking buddies, he gets her to come out of her shell, and she nudges him towards the introspection he’s thoroughly avoided.
Ponsoldt explored excessive drinking in his previous film, Smashed, but unlike that feature, Spectacular Now isn’t about the quest to get sober. It’s a perfect symbol for a kid who won’t think about his future. Like any good drunk, the consequences rarely enter into the equation. When Sutter wakes up on Aimee’s lawn, he doesn’t know where his car is even though he remembers driving it home. Alcohol makes Sutter feel good in the moment, and the moment is where he lives. Even with Aimee, he ropes her into his drinking, but for her it never becomes an escape. It becomes a connection.
Watching these two characters play off each other is an absolute joy. Sutter draws us into the story with his fun personality, and Aimee grounds it with her sweet shyness. When put together, you have characters who complement each other perfectly without the relationship ever feeling contrived. Ponsoldt and his actors make Aimee and Sutter’s romance feel completely authentic, and the director wisely cast actors who look like real high-schoolers. Teller and Woodley aren’t unattractive by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re not supermodels who wandered into a high school. We look at Sutter and Aimee and we know these people, not just because they look familiar, but because the actors do an outstanding job with their characters.
Woodley wowed audiences in 2011’s The Descendants, and her work in The Spectacular Now is even better. No offense to her co-star, but it’s a bit more difficult to convince us that a girl as pretty as Aimee would be unpopular, but Ponsoldt doesn’t try to pull a She’s All That by saying that she’d be beautiful if only her hair wasn’t pulled back in a ponytail. He’s not trying to give Aimee a physical makeover because Woodley shows us that the character is beautiful on the inside. When she talks about her dream marriage at the dinner party of Sutter’s sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), we can’t help but fall in love with Aimee.
Woodley is fantastic, but the breakthrough turn comes from Teller. If The Spectacular Now becomes a hit, Teller becomes a star. He is funny, charismatic, and completely believable as a guy who is happy to pretend he’s one-dimensional because he doesn’t want to look beyond his narrow self-definition. When Sutter’s world starts being upended by honest emotions that force him to reevaluate his personality and his relationship with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler), Teller plays the drama with just as much power and passion as the comedy. Credit must once again be shared with Ponsoldt who skillfully transitions the movie from a big, bold comic first half to a thoughtful, heartfelt dramatic conclusion.
By investing in his characters and giving the actors room to flesh out their characters, Ponsoldt stops his movie from being a cautionary tale. Obviously, “living like there’s no tomorrow” isn’t a good approach to long-term happiness, but it’s an understandable escape. It’s undoubtedly entertaining to watch Sutter flee from his responsibilities and neglect plans for life beyond high school. But The Spectacular Now never lets its protagonist off the hook. The movie doesn’t lecture and it doesn’t scold; it simply lets the present play out to an uncertain and ultimately more rewarding future.