Ida Scott Taylor once wrote “Do not look back and grieve over the past, for it is gone; and do not be troubled about the future, for it has yet to come. Live in the present and make it so beautiful that it will be worth remembering”. All this sounds quite beautiful, but let’s be honest here, the whole ‘live in the present’ philosophy is not exactly a good one. Often we have to think about tomorrow because we expect to still be here. The Spectacular Now is a wonderful film that explores the ‘live in the now’ mentality while taking a look into high school romance and the anxiety of escaping our shells in the teenage years. Led by the wonderful performances of Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now is a charming yet powerful coming-of-age story about the fear of looking into the future and simply staying in the safety net of the present.
There are elements of the 80s and 90s coming of age films that resonate through The Spectacular Now, but the film spends little time making us feel nostalgic and throws us right in and immerse ourselves in the lives of the characters.
The film follows Sutter Keely (played by Miles Teller), the class clown and “life of the party” who wanders everywhere with a soda cup spiked with whiskey. Think of him as an alcoholic Ferris Bueller, who is not in good control of his inner demons. He’s the carefree spirit that enjoys living in the present and does not plan for the future. After getting dumped by his “perfect girlfriend” Cassidy (Brie Larson), Sutter drowns his sorrows out through an epic night of drinking. The film cuts to the following morning to find him passed out in the front lawn of a house where Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) notices him while doing her morning newspaper route. While the two attend the same high school, Sutter never really noticed her because she’s bookish and quiet. The two bond over the course of delivering newspaper around the neighbourhood and later forms what Sutter believes to be a rebound relationship. Sutter helps Aimee expand her horizons, learn to live in the spectacular now and drink some whiskey along the way. Meanwhile Aimee, attempts to help Sutter out of neutral and start thinking about the future.
A popular boy meets a smart, nerdy girl and they fall in love. Sounds like a typical Hollywood teenage flick on paper but the film does not play off like that at all. It is refreshing to see high school seniors act and talk like high school seniors. It is also nice to see the actors look somewhat believable as high school kids (both leads are actually in their early 20s).
The performances from the leads and supporting actors were phenomenal. Miles Teller brings the “now-loving” Sutter to life. The transition he made from being a carefree teenage to a dark broken individual was done effortlessly. Never have I seen such a tragic character so hilarious and charming at the same time. Shailene Woodley nails the part of being a smart, reserved girl who has so much going for her but doesn’t realize it yet. She brilliantly displayed Aimee’s confidence and ability to dream big yet also highlight her vulnerabilities and selfless caring nature. It is also refreshing to see the ex-girlfriend Cassidy as just another normal teenager. She is not some heartless person who dumps Sutter just to date the most popular jock in the school. In fact, she is just as lost as Sutter but at least she recognizes the shortcomings of ‘living in the now’. Brie Larson does a fantastic job displaying the struggles of her character’s desire to live in the now yet also wanting a decent future. The supporting roles were nicely filled with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the roles of Sutter’s mom and sister, and Bob Odenkirk and Andre Royo as Sutter’s boss and algebra teacher. Also, lemme tell you somethin’. Kyle Chandler does the exact flipside of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights as he plays Sutter’s deadbeat dad. Unfortunately, I had a hard time seeing him as such a rat since Coach Taylor has left such a good impression on me over the years. Fantastic job by Chandler nonetheless.
Director James Ponsoldt, who made last year’s flick Smashed (also featured at Sundance) focused on alcoholism and how it affects the lives around that. Alcohol seems to be another running theme in The Spectacular Now; that’s fine since I don’t mind a bit of edge in a teenage coming of age movie. This does however bring up some minor flaws in the film which revolves around Sutter’s ability to access alcohol without a fake ID. In addition to that, there are certain events of the film caused by the consumption of alcohol yet it does not deal with the repercussions and simply moves along.
The movie is based on a 2008 young adult novel by Tim Tharp, which has been brilliantly adapted to the screen by (500) Days of Summer writers Scott Neustader and Michael H. Weber. As far as movie adaptations go, James Ponsoldt and the screenwriters sure did justice to the source material. Unlike The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now did not have the luxury of having the book’s author direct the film, so it’s quite the accomplishment to capture the heartfelt story in its entirety.
The film finishes on a slightly more optimistic tone compared to the source material but it does not cheapen the story at all. It leaves us wanting more. What’s remarkable about this movie is that it all feels very natural. The dialogue, the awkward silences and the subtle mannerisms of the characters draws us into the lives of these characters as if we’re eavesdropping in real life rather than watching some polished material on the screen. There are times in the movie where you would want to set Sutter straight and tell him to get his act together. In fact at one point in the film, it was rather ambiguous whether Sutter was really falling for Aimee or simply using her as a rebound girl. There are times when you want to tell Aimee to ditch this loser before his drinking problem becomes “their” drinking problem (he is the one that introduced whiskey to Aimee and also gave her a personalized Whiskey flask as a prom gift). At the same time, you want to root for these two. You get to see Aimee grow and emerge from her domineering mother while Sutter learns and deals with the hard truth about his absentee father. These two characters are maturing and they both complement each other very well. Deep down inside, you just want them to have a happy ending. By the end of The Spectacular Now, you’re not quite ready to let these characters go and would love to check in every few years just to see how they’re going.
Despite the minor flaws, this is such a deep and thoughtful movie. The nostalgia for the romance of teenage life is seeping from all the corners of this film. At least we can relate to Sutter’s problem. The carefree nature of teenage life can be a lot of fun and it can be quite memorable. Sometimes it can be hard to let go of that lifestyle and makes us wish we never have to grow up at all.