Director: James Ponsoldt
Stars: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler
Running time: 95 minutes
Filmmakers don't always handle young love with much honesty—how often do on-screen romances get dealt with in realistic ways that viewers can relate to? The flash mob scene at the end of Friends With Benefits always comes to mind as an example of Hollywood's inclination toward exaggerated fairy tale conclusions.
Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber don't seem to have any interest in those kinds of forcibly optimistic resolutions. First, they depicted a nice guy's emotional devastation caused by an incompatible partner in (500) Days of Summer; and for their follow-up screenplay, The Spectacular Now (based on the novel by Tim Tharp), the duo has taken it back to the uncertain coming-of-age high school days. The result is an uncommonly thoughtful and powerful examination of angst. It's also the second top-notch, character-powered dramedy from director James Ponsoldt, coming on the heels of last year's underrated Smashed. Like Neustadter and Weber, and proven by The Spectacular Now, Ponsoldt has a special voice.
In a performance that should officially turn him into a star, Miles Teller (21 and Over) plays Sutter, an aimless, borderline alcoholic kid whose girlfriend (Brie Larson) has just broken up with him; his father (Kyle Chandler) is nowhere to be seen; and his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) isn't exactly affectionate. To hide his self-loathing, Sutter goes about his senior year being the perpetual class clown, a jokester who doesn't take anything seriously.
After a drunken bender, he gets woken up on a stranger's front lawn by Amy (Shailene Woodley), a slightly nerdy, far less popular classmate who reads comic books and has never had a boyfriend. There's an immediate connection, and it doesn't take long for Amy to fall head over heels as she inspires Sutter to confront his family issues and finally approach life with a straight face. But in The Spectacular Now, love doesn't necessarily conquer everything. Ponsoldt's film isn't concerned with taking the safe way out—it's at times surprising just how real The Spectacular Now keeps it, sending its characters headfirst into heartbreak, downward spirals, and physical harm.
And when the characters suffer, you're right there with them. Aside from its resonant themes, The Spectacular Now is furthermore a showcase for two of the best under-30 actors. Teller and Woodley have an effortless chemistry, even as their characters really go through it emotionally. When Sutter endangers himself by pushing back against what's good for him, you can't help but feel for the guy; as Amy becomes more and more blinded by her first love, you're own heart melts watching her helplessly encounter desire's darker sides. And when Sutter delicately pops Amy's cherry, it's a tender, excellently performed and masterfully staged moment.
Last year, the sleeper hit The Perks of Being a Wallflower blindsided critics with its atypically frank and fearless depiction of high schoolers who don't just flirt with chicks, bump uglies, and goof around in class—that film's characters are just as complicated as those in the best adult drama. Now that we've got The Spectacular Now (which will open theatrically in August), it's officially a burgeoning trend: the mature, reality-based teen movie. This is a very good thing.