Review: The Spectacular Now

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller lift an otherwise disappointingly familiar coming-of-age tale in James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now.”

“The Spectacular Now” is a horrible title. Can we just get that out of the way first? I don’t like criticism that just goes for the snarky cheap shots, but seriously. I work at a movie theater and judging by the business we’re getting, “The Spectacular Now” has fantastic word-of-mouth, but not a single person has said that title correctly to me.

Sorry. Objective criticism hat on now. Despite its overly twee name, “The Spectacular Now” carves itself out a pleasant, authentic niche in the adolescent coming-of-age genre – at least until it caves into a series of plot development worthy of a Lifetime movie. Generally I’m a sucker for high school romances, but something about this year’s efforts – “The Way, Way Back” and now “The Spectacular Now” (a summer for redundancy, apparently) – has left me cold. It’s a shame, especially considering I want to support Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the screenwriters of “500 Days of Summer” and “Spectacular Now,” in their almost single-handed campaign to revive the romantic comedy. But the light, charming love story of “The Spectacular Now” quickly collapses into an obvious social problem film, leaving the Sundance favorite, like “The Way, Way Back,” as primarily an actor’s showcase rather than a fully-formed gem.

The primary actor in question is Miles Teller, whose previous work in drunken “Superbad” ripoffs like “Project X” and “21 & Over” couldn’t possibly have prepared us for the magnetism and presence he provides here. His lead character, Sutter, is the kind of guy everyone knows from high school but is remarkably scarce on the screen: the popular guy who is NOT a jock. Sutter is outgoing, winning, affable, observant – capable of making friends with anyone and everyone around him. At the beginning of the film, he’s enjoying the secondary school high life with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), at least until she unceremoniously dumps him, ostensibly for cheating on her but really because of Sutter’s persistent drinking problem. Sutter’s addiction is treated at first with remarkable subtlety: no one ever even speaks the work “alcoholic,” and we get all the information we need from the boy’s suspicious habit of constantly carrying around a Big Gulp.

The morning after the breakup, Sutter is woken up, lying in the front yard of a complete stranger. Standing over him is Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a girl from his class at school. Aimee is a phenomenal character: a teenage girl who is neither a geek, a slut or a rebel. She’s not the most popular girl around, but hardly a social outcast – she’s just a normal person, a bit shy, who’s too busy running her mother’s paper route at 6 am in the morning to worry too much about showing herself off socially. Woodley, who made the most out of an underserved role as George Clooney’s eldest daughter in “The Descendants,” shows considerable range with Aimee: without any big speeches or pandering Oscar moments, she gives this level-headed, sweet girl life.

Teller and Woodley have a terrific, natural chemistry, and the film’s second half, dealing with Sutter and Aimee’s budding romance, is a delight. Their flirtation is unforced – much to the surprise of their classmates (and any audience accustomed to more rote, obligatory wooing), the two simply find that they enjoy talking to each other, and things develop quite naturally from there. Although Sutter secretly harbors hopes of getting back together with Cassidy, even he would have to admit that he pines after his ex more out of a need to follow the approved high school script than anything else. Aimee may not be the golden girl, but she’s the right one. She’s more adventurous than her introverted exterior might suggest, and Sutter introduces her to the carnal pleasures of whiskey…among other things.

But “The Spectacular Now” nearly veers off the rails when it decides to essentially stop developing Aimee and focus on solving Sutter’s muddled mindset. His carpe diem lifestyle may have made him the most popular man at school, but Sutter’s insistence on living in the eponymous “now” is probably preventing him from going to college or having much of a future at all. This doesn’t seem to bother the young man too much until he tracks down his deadbeat father (Kyle Chandler), a drunken layabout that not even Coach can lift beyond Driver’s Ed video territory. It’s obvious that alcoholism is a major personal issue for director James Ponsoldt, who also directed last year’s indie darling “Smashed.” But Sutter’s father brings the film’s real heart, that is the Sutter-Aimee romance, to a screeching halt in favor of a PSA.

From there the emotional revelations and twists come fast but not too furious. After building up Sutter for most of the film as a flawed but ultimately well-meaning and likable guy, the sudden need to scold him for his adolescent uncertainty and mistakes feels more compulsory than heartfelt. And after creating such a balanced, fetching couple with Sutter and Aimee, it’s a shame that once again, the emotional arc of the film has to be left entirely on the shoulders of the quirky, troubled guy.

Yet, despite the flaws in its screenplay, “The Spectacular Now” is lifted by a universally strong ensemble. Teller and Woodley are rightly given the bulk of the screen time, but a small host of great character actors do a great job playing variations on the concerned mentor. Jennifer Jason Leigh is appropriately weary as Sutter’s beleaguered mother, while Bob Odenkirk makes an oddly touching, unexpectedly unfunny turn as the boy’s boss at a local haberdashery. Andre Royo and Mary Elizabeth Winstead make strong impressions as well, in brief turns as Sutter’s teacher and sister, respectively.

Like “500 Days of Summer,” Neustadter and Weber’s latest effort is about one act short of a classic. A palpable sense of honesty and authenticity gives way to contrivance. It’s almost as disappointing as that title.

Now playing in indie theaters.

Verdict: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars

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