If The Spectacular Now, director James Ponsoldt’s follow-up to his 2012 sophomore effort, Smashed, can be described in a word, it’s “candid”. Of course, there are many other words well-suited for conveying the film’s numerous positive qualities- sweet, funny, insightful, vital, bold, and even original- but contemporary coming-of-age dramedies usually don’t bother with being this frank about their subject matter. Ponsoldt, however, isn’t one to move sideways around his material and instead plows into it head-on, weaving a narrative that flows with ease between moments of tenderness, drunken juvenility, love, heartbreak, and straight-up shock without ever feeling inauthentic or forced. Teenage fare this genuine is a rare thing indeed.
How can we assess The Spectacular Now‘s authenticity? Because we know these characters. We went to school with them. Everybody- everybody– had a Sutter Keely in their class at one point or another, the clownish life of the party for whom the party never really stops; he’s everybody’s friend, even though everybody secretly thinks he’s kind of a joke. In another film, Sutter (Miles Teller, emerging as a young actor of stunning talent) would be the supporting sidekick (for proof, see the 2011 remake of Footloose, where Teller basically plays that exact role), but The Spectacular Now makes a character study of him while examining the attitudes of modern American teenagers in the process.
Sutter’s a goofy, affable kid, but his relentless gregariousness is a mask. So disguised in his sociability, he lives his life in “the now”, shirking schoolwork as he slowly ambles down the path to alcoholism behind everyone’s backs. When we meet him, he’s just coming out of a breakup with his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), and ends up having a chance encounter with another young lass, Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley, topping her work on The Descendants as she continues establishing herself as an actress to watch), after a night on the town that leaves him passed out on her lawn. Aimee’s almost the polar opposite of Sutter; she’s quiet, shy, and keeps to herself, preferring to read sci-fi than party, but they connect almost instantly.
Their meeting is the catalyst for the rest of the film’s events as Sutter struggles through the final stretch of his high school experience and, eventually, confronts the reasons behind his inclination toward the drink- as well as his personal philosophy about living for the moment. As one might expect, the trail leads back to his absentee father (Kyle Chandler, wonderfully unkempt), and there’s both more and less to the story than we and Sutter realize. Sometimes, the truth is placed right in front of us and we just don’t want to acknowledge it; such is the tale of Sutter’s broken family, but he’s guided along the way by his budding relationship with Aimee.
But Aimee’s no manic pixie dream girl, and Sutter winds up helping her grow as much as she helps him face his past and his future. There’s a question as to whether he’s a good or harmful influence on her, and when The Spectacular Now fades to black, it remains unanswered; you’ll have to draw your own conclusions. Ponsoldt’s ambiguity marks one of the more brilliant flourishes he brings to a film full of them, but nothing impresses more than the deftness with which he turns genre convention on its head and mines the unexpected from the cliched.