Imagine Ferris Bueller as an alcoholic and you’ve got Sutter (Miles Teller) from The Spectacular Now. While John Hughes’ personification of high school cool lived in a realm of teenage fantasy, Sutter occupies a stark reality where being the life of the party is starting to lose its glimmer. Director James Ponsoldt has crafted an authentic tale which captures the life lessons that spring up unexpectedly when blind confidence dictates you’ve got life all figured out.
Sutter is a popular teenager who likes to party and after breaking up with his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), he gets heavily drunk. The next morning he wakes on a stranger’s front lawn, with a hangover, where he is discovered by Aimee (Shailene Woodley). Sutter and Aimee develop a bond that changes the course of their plans post high school.
When meeting Sutter for the first time in The Spectacular Now he is filling out an online college application form by answering a question about facing hardship. Sutter confidently states his mantra in hopes that honesty may land him a spot. While Sutter deserves points for his optimism, it’s a big joke about his boozy rebound from a break-up. Screenwriters Scott Neustadteu and Michael H. Weber (adapting the book by Tim Tharp of the same name) set a rocketing pace with Sutter. The character is proud of living in the moment and it rubs off onto everyone Sutter meets, yet he cushions making any real personal connections with alcohol. Once Aimee enters the picture, Neustadteu and Weber craft wonderful conversations that begin to open each character’s perspective about the world around them. It’s incredibly sweet watching their affection for each other grow and Ponsoldt frames a lot of the conversational scenes between in a similar way to director Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Through the eyes of Aimee, family and friends, Sutter begins to realise who he really is and his lack of real life experiences. Once Sutter “wakes up” it’s a hard path to acceptance, but nothing is forced or contrived thanks to Ponsoldt, Neustadteu and Weber’s gentle handling of the material.
Repetition does sully the film a little, especially with the overemphasis on Sutter’s drinking. When the point is made flawlessly in once scene it’s diminished by three other similar moments. It’s like being beaten over the head with a whisky bottle at times.
To say Teller is good in The Spectacular Now is an understatement. If the actor isn’t booked solid for the rest of his career after this film, the system is broken. Teller explodes with energy and during the darker moments he is captivating. Teller is able to steer Sutter through the haze of liquor and it’s icky seeing his young face smacked with the sickly sweat of an alcoholic. Woodley is charming and she represents a more realistic representation of the “girl next door” without playing to any of the all-American-girl clichés; there is not a cheerleading pom pom or spec of platinum blond hair in sight. Together, Teller and Woodley are close to perfection and their chemistry could power most of North Korea.
Kyle Chandler is fantastic as a dead-beat dad and Masam Holden is great as Teller’s best friend. Bob Odenkirk, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Andre Royo make their tiny supporting roles matter.
Pondsolt has taken an authentic approach to creating the teenage experience when so many depictions of youth in film are obsessed with “coming-of-age”. The Spectacular Now focuses solely on self acceptance, flaws and all, and succeeds wonderfully.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies