In the sublime “The Spectacular Now,” the lead character, Sutter, has no ambition. Zero. Unless it’s to find the next party.
And that’s never much of a problem, since he always — always — has an alcoholic drink in his hands. And he’s only 18.
But as embodied by Miles Teller (from the “Footloose” remake), Sutter is at once charming and affecting. He has an uncommon gift of making people feel better about themselves, mostly because he tells them what they want to hear.
But Sutter has just gone through a break-up with his ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson, “21 Jump Street”), and though he’s doing his best to stifle it, the hurt is still under the surface.
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To drink the pain away, he heads out for a particularly successful night of partying by sneaking into a local bar.
The next day, Sutter is found passed out on someone’s lawn by Aimee (Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”). He doesn’t know where he is or where his car is (yes, he drinks and drives — too often). So he helps Aimee deliver newspapers on her route while he looks for his car.
She’s obviously not the typical girl he’s attracted to. She’s the straight-laced good student. He’s the slacker bad-boy train wreck.
Nevertheless, charm amped up to the fullest, Sutter asks Aimee out on a date. Partly because he likes her, but mostly because he wants to show the world that he’s over Cassidy, though he clearly is not.
As their romance blossoms, the question becomes: Can she save him before he ruins her?
And we discover that all Sutter really wants in life is to meet his deadbeat father (Kyle Chandler), though he’s forbidden to by his overworked mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
The script, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who wrote the wonderful “500 Days of Summer,” another sharp romantic comedy) and based on the novel by Tim Tharp, is beautifully subdued. They’ve crafted a universe with real, human characters and exclude the trappings of a typical teen romance or coming-of-age tale. There are no “types” here.
Director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) keeps things engrossing. He employs several long takes without cuts, which usually brings a self-awareness to the scene. But here it allows the actors to engage in “real” conversations, putting us right into the action. Especially as Sutter heads toward a downward spiral.
“The Spectacular Now” won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for its acting, and rightly so. The performances are absolutely spot-on, so effortlessly naturalistic and emotional. Woodley gives us delicate insecurity and exudes an innocent vulnerability. Teller, though, carries the film. He lets us see what’s going on in Sutter’s brain with the simple tweak of an eyebrow. And he lets us see the mounting confusion in his eyes.
The film is engrossing all the way through. It’s funny at times, but then it tenderly breaks your heart. Just like love and adulthood.
It ends optimistically, though, and with a message, perhaps: Seize the day. But don’t dwell on it.