At some point in the post-Say Anything world of teenage coming of age movies, American attempts at the genre ceased trying to replicate the teenage experience with anything resembling realism and started shooting for generic escapism, let’s call it the She’s All That syndrome. But 2013 has seen a bumper crop of coming-of-age cinema true to the teenage experience, with The Kings of Summer; The Way, Way Back; and the very best of the bunch (the best of its sort since 2002’s Raising Victor Vargas, I’d wager) in The Spectacular Now. Director James Ponsoldt (last year’s Smashed) brings an emotional specificity to the material that feels simultaneously deeply personal and wholly accessible, taking Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s (500 Days of Summer) lovely screenplay adaptation (from Tim Tharp’s young adult novel of the same name) and painting a vivid portrait of the teenage experience with it.
We meet Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) amidst a downward spiral in the wake of his recent break-up with girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), choosing to deal with it the only way he knows how: a copious application of alcohol to numb the senses. He comes to the next morning on classmate Aimee Finecky’s (Shailene Woodley) lawn, thus beginning the tentative courtship at the center of the film. Sutter and Aimee slowly get to know one another, with Sutter’s life-of-the-party attitude style slowly drawing Aimee out of her shell as they come to depend on one another in ways neither could’ve expected. With each other’s encouragement, Aimee finds the courage to stand up to her mom and make plans to attend college in Philadelphia while Sutter is determined to finally make contact with his estranged father, a man whom he hasn’t seen in over a decade. But Sutter’s aimlessness (and perpetually whiskey-spiked Big Gulp that he carries with him throughout the picture) threatens to derail both of their lives if he isn’t able to get his act together.
It wouldn’t be hyperbolic for me to say that Teller and Woodley deliver two of my very favorite performances of the year in this movie; both actors disappear into their roles completely. Teller, whose performance in the 2010 John Cameron Mitchell film Rabbit Hole suggested a powerful future career, delivers on that promise here, imbuing Sutter with a genuine love of everyone and everything around him that makes the character intensely endearing even as his decision-making leaves much to be desired. Shailene Woodley, meanwhile, provides the movie with its heart, taking the reserved Aimee and letting her slowly blossom to the world. It’s beautiful, restrained work that grows more powerful over the course of the film, thanks to the effortless chemistry that developed between the two leads.
The film is generous to its entire cast though, giving no character short shrift and allowing every performance, no matter how small, to make an impression on the audience. Take Sutter’s ex-girlfriend Cassidy and his boss Dan (Bob Odenkirk). In a lesser film these characters would be little more than emotional wallpaper, background characters used to propel the narrative along as little more than an afterthought, but here they’re living and breathing characters with rich inner emotional lives that intersect with our leads without being overpowered by them. Which is to say nothing of the rest of a phenomenal supporting cast including powerful turns from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Dayo Okeniyi who all bring a great deal of emotional resonance to the periphery of the picture.
The Spectacular Now doesn’t try to bowl you over with profound insights into the human condition or sweeping romantic gestures set to a Top 40 soundtrack, instead allowing its tender courtship to unfold at a natural pace that slowly draws you in without shying away from a genuine portrait of teenage life. I must briefly mention how absurd it is that a movie that could prove to be so important to young people is saddled with an “R” rating thanks to its unflinching depiction of teenagerdom (brief instances of foul language coupled with recreational drinking and teenage sexuality doomed it from the start), immediately hiding the film from the audience to whom it could mean the most. Without even noticing it, The Spectacular Now sank its hooks into me deeply, making the final 20-odd minutes of the movie a rapid succession of increasingly emotional gut punches (pack some tissue just to be safe) without ever lapsing into maudlin territory. Deeply moving, deeply felt and deeply wonderful, this is one of the best movies of the year.
And we have tickets to give away!