Who would have seen this coming? Miles Teller had a role earlier in 2013 in 21 & Over and was terrible. Here, in The Spectacular Now, he’s natural, sympathetic, and genuinely funny. The actor who received praise for his supporting role in Rabbit Hole shines through once again. My hope is that Teller decides to stick to these types of films. His strength is not obnoxious and offensive comedies like 21 & Over; he’s at his best in a movie like this one, where he doesn’t have to force anything.
Lots of movies are the same way. The ones that try to force the jokes are the ones that wind up the least humorous, the least watchable. The Spectacular Now feels so real because it doesn’t force anything. It draws you in with real people and lets you watch them for 90 minutes. You see them go through the highs and lows of a relationship — or not a relationship, if the character Teller plays is to be believed. It has a fantastic sense of itself and it doesn’t try to manipulate you in any way, except perhaps in one shocking moment — although it makes less of a deal of it than you will at the time.
Teller plays Sutter Keely, an 18-year-old approaching graduation. He recently broke up with Cassidy (Brie Larson), although he still thinks about her all the time. He drinks a lot, carrying a flask he uses to spike his soda. He drives under the influence, he doesn’t care about his marks, and he could actually fail to graduate if this keeps up. One morning he wakes up in a lawn with a girl, Aimee (Shailene Woodley), standing over him. She’s on a paper route — her mom’s, but she does it if her mother stayed out too late — and Sutter decides to help her out. He doesn’t know where his car is, anyway.
The two become fast friends. The thought of Cassidy starts to dissipate, although it doesn’t fully disappear. Sutter isn’t looking for a new girlfriend, while Aimee’s never had a significant other before. The two share parents they won’t stand up to, and while they initially seem like opposites we learn they have more in common than would appear on the surface.
For the first two-thirds of The Spectacular Now, we sit and observe the progression of their relationship. They begin spending more time together, enjoying each other’s company even more, and eventually get to the stage where both are confident to call the other more than a friend. The film is sweet at this point and observant, although it has hardly covered any new territory. About the only thing separating it from other similar films is that its characters feel real, which is unlike most movie teenagers you’ll see.
It’s after the first hour or so when the film reveals its true nature, taking us to a darker place than similar films dare to venture and becoming as focused on maturing its characters as it is on their relationship. This transition is handled well, largely because the seeds are planted early on so that when they sprout later on it doesn’t come out of left field. We saw the signs and now it’s time for the characters to deal with situations they’ve created.
Despite the film being told from Sutter’s perspective we get almost as much insight into Aimee’s life as we do his. Sutter’s immaturity and personality come from his parents — he and his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) don’t speak much and his father (Kyle Chandler) left when he was young. Understanding that is key into “getting” the character. Aimee’s home life is similar, in that she feels responsible for her mother, not the other way around, and her father died early on.
None of the characters feel like your typical movie teenagers. Sutter is extroverted but emotionally stunted. He thinks he’s the greatest thing has to come to terms that other people don’t see him that way. Aimee falls in love and seems more sure of herself, but without any prior experience she can’t really know. Cassidy could have easily been portrayed as either perfect or the Queen B, but instead comes across as someone who will always have feelings for Sutter but realizes that, as he is now, there is no future with him.
The three teenage characters are played by actors who turn in very naturalistic performances. Miles Teller, as I already touched on, is shockingly good. Shailene Woodley is sweet and innocent early on and gains confidence as the film progresses. That’s tough for an actor to portray. Brie Larson’s role is anything but generic. The film treats its subject matter and characters with respect, as only the good teenage movies do. It doesn’t pander or talk down to them, and as a result we’re treated to a smart and honest film.
The Spectacular Now might not be particularly focused on its narrative, but its characters are top-notch and feel very realistic. We get to observe them for such a time that when the time comes for them to blossom — or fail — we understand exactly why either (or both) happens. Their relationship is sweet, the humor comes from a very natural place, and the production treats its teenage subjects with respect. The story goes in a darker direction than similar films, and it feels honest and true throughout. This is a good movie.