After receiving rave reviews from its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year, buzz has been building for James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now. So, does it live up to the hype? No, not really, but films rarely do. Despite being overrated by critics during its currently-brief lifetime, the film still impresses in many ways. It is a refreshingly realistic and moving portrayal of adolescence that is likely to ring true for many viewers.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a popular, fun-loving high school student who strives to live life in the now. He has a strained relationship with his mother and his father left when he was a child. Academically struggling through his final year of school, Sutter has no plans for the future; he hasn’t even applied to any colleges yet. His life changes when he meets Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley). Aimee agrees to tutor Sutter, and they fall for each other. Their sweet but sometimes turbulent relationship teaches Sutter that he has to forget the past, cherish the present and plan for the future.
When we first meet Sutter he is living day to day, soaking in the fun times but refusing to address anything else. He seems to have an alcohol dependency; he rarely goes a scene without consuming alcohol. The film presents Sutter as a really fun guy. He is popular with everyone at school, and he describes himself as the life of every party.
For this reason, the success of the film really rests on whether or not Sutter is believable as this all-round lovable guy. However, rather than appearing charming and entertaining, Teller’s performance causes Sutter to come across as smug and insufferable; it is hard to believe that he would be popular at all. Credit where credit is due though, and Teller really nails the later, emotional scenes and shows glimpses of real talent, but his performance in the earlier scenes is quite grating.
Thankfully the film’s saviour arrives in the form of Shailene Woodley. Following up her wonderful performance in The Descendents (2011), Woodley is even better here as the ‘normal’ girl who steals Sutter’s heart. Despite the fact that it takes a bit of a leap to believe that a girl as great as Aimee would ever be attracted to a guy like Sutter, the relationship works because of Woodley’s honest and endearing performance. Aimee’s sharing the story of her father’s death to a table of strangers at a dinner party is so true-to-life that Woodley seems to cease acting all together.
Similarly to the recently released About Time, The Spectacular Now is not the film you think it is. Marketed primarily as a love story, the film is really about Sutter’s letting go of his “don’t believe or hope in anything because you’ll just be let down” attitude. Sure, his relationship with Aimee is integral to this journey, but it is not the focus. Just as important is Sutter’s realisation that the absent father he has idolised for years (Kyle Chandler) is actually a hopeless disappointment.
This moving subplot is the true catalyst for Sutter realising that he is going nowhere, and Teller, Woodley and Chandler perform these brief scenes masterfully.
The supporting performances are impressive across the board. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings a quiet dignity to Sutter’s mother, expertly portraying in her brief scenes a woman who has not led an easy life. Also impressive is another brief performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter’s sister, Holly. Her discussion with Miles about the whereabouts of their father is incredibly moving thanks to Winstead’s subtlety. Bob Odenkirk’s performance as Sutter’s boss holds so much potential, and it is a shame that he was not given more time to develop this heart-warming character.
The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the novel by Tim Tharp) is incredibly realistic in its depiction of the months leading up to the end of high school; the equal excitement and uncertainty of having to decide what you want to do with your life when you have absolutely no idea. Some extra time could have been devoted to the development of Sutter and Aimee’s relationship.
It seems to move too quickly at some points, and a few extra scenes would have helped to flesh these developments out. On the technical side of things, the use of Phosphorescent’s amazing “Song For Zula” is a beautifully complementary addition to the film.
The Spectacular Now is a solid entry in the ‘coming-of-age’ genre. Sutter’s development into a young man who takes ownership of his life and takes hold of his future is moving and real. The portrayal of his relationship with Aimee suffers somewhat because of faults in Miles Teller’s performance, but is rescued by an inspired turn by Shailene Woodley.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Runtime: 95 Minutes
The Spectacular Now is screening in select theatres now.