The Spectacular Now
Opens Fri., Aug. 16 at Harvard Exit, Lincoln Square, and Sundance Cinemas. Rated R. 95 minutes.
This adaptation of a 2008 young-adult novel by Tim Tharp plays like one of those cautionary old TV after-school specials. You know—Jenny has an eating disorder, or Jimmy is smoking too much pot, or Jeremy needs to tell someone the gym teacher is touching him in inappropriate places. Here our fatherless teen protagonist is Sutter (Miles Teller), who lives a wildly unsupervised life of partying and blown-off homework. He wakes up on a lawn, unsure where he left the car, which introduces him to smart-girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley, one of Clooney’s kids in The Descendants). They’re total opposites, and The Spectacular Now is the story of their unlikely yet plausible romance.
Oh, and Sutter is plainly an alcoholic, though that term is curiously omitted from The Spectacular Now, because that would be too . . . no, wait a minute, what American family isn’t familiar with that term? And how could college-bound Aimee not be not brainy enough to detect Sutter’s constant drinking? You’re telling me these things aren’t discussed, particularly by his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh), after her alkie ex abandoned them? Today’s teens, and audiences, are smarter than that.
Still, director James Ponsoldt’s young duo behaves with a likable, naturalistic ease. There are no Hughesian quips or ridiculously hunky/beautiful high-schoolers here. This is suburban Georgia, not The O.C. Ponsoldt had his indie breakthrough with Smashed (whose star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, shows up as Sutter’s sister). Here again he shows a nice touch with the uncharmed lives of ordinary characters unaware how one misstep could lead to disaster. Both these kids are from families close to slipping out of the middle class, shadowed by the recession. In response to such stresses (absent fathers, etc.), Sutter’s credo is “Live in the now,” while ever-striving Aimee’s goals are to own a horse farm and work for NASA. They’re both living in a bubble, but such is first love.
Reality intrudes in The Spectacular Now’s clunky third act, as a road trip to find Sutter’s father (a fine Kyle Chandler) yields predictable results. The storytelling here surpasses the story (adapted by Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter). Every generation needs its new Say Anything. This isn’t that movie, but it earns points for trying.