The Spectacular Now is one of the few films these days that dramatizes adolescence without making everyone a demon hunter or a dystopic rebel. It’s about real teenagers, or realistic ones at any rate, going through their daily lives and trying to muddle out a happy coexistence with their peers, even though on some level we are all a little lost. The Spectacular Now tells a universal story of youth by making its tale even more specific, not metaphoric, and thanks to some truly remarkable lead performances and some sweetly understated writing, feels like one of the better coming-of-age films we’ve seen in a long while.
Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, just about the most affable fellow in high school movie history, who lives in the moment and makes each of those moments count, whether it means romancing an ex-girlfriend because the opportunity arose, or giving her new boyfriend advice about how to keep her, because that’s what the poor guy needed to hear at the time. His actions are contradictory to each other but not to himself: Sutter always provides exactly what every moment in his life requires, and somehow that’s his biggest problem.
Sutter’s ebullient charm makes him seem like the perfect guy, or at least the perfect friend, but it’s funny how he always has a Big Gulp in his hand at all time, sipping away like it never empties. As time goes by we notice that he’s constantly filling it with hard liquor, and realize that he probably faces every minute of every day at least a little soused. That’s what he needs to be this person everyone needs him to be, and live a life of peacefully accepting every situation flung upon him.
But as Sutter romances Aimee, a quietly wonderful girl-next-door type played by Shailene Woodley, and she gradually becomes a borderline alcoholic as well, we begin to suspect that The Spectacular Now has an alternate, scare tactic agenda. We begin to fear that the unassumingly simple story of a boy sacrificing his own future for the immediate happiness of others is going to take a horrifying turn towards the judgmental, and force Sutter Keely to learn a valuable lesson about the dangers of booze. And yet, thankfully for all of us, that trite take on a familiar story never materializes. While The Spectacular Now does eventually force Sutter to confront his personal failings, it doesn’t take an act of god to get him there. He lives, he loves, he experiences deep disappointment in his parents and wonders how the hell he came to be this way, and over the course of time he grows up. The Sword of Damocles hangs high yet never deals the killing blow. Sutter doesn’t need it, and the audience doesn’t either.
It’s unusual to find a film with such disarming sensitivity as The Spectacular Now, one that acknowledges the hardships of growing up and even substance abuse without bestowing harsh conclusions or punishments on a single character. The Spectacular Now worms its drama out of natural moments, long takes between Sutter and Aimee that transform from casual conversation into life-altering memories, and propels forward because that’s exactly what life does, even if nothing terribly forceful pushes us into a new set of values. Nothing feels contrived in the world of The Spectacular Now. I suspect that’s because it mirrors so kindly our own world, and the good, albeit almost universally mixed-up people within it, and their gradual journeys into whomever they become.
The Spectacular Now is a rare, special movie that makes sympathy a thrill, and the goodness of its characters enough motivation for successful drama. It’s tender, whereas most of its ilk tends to tenderize for cheap plot points. Life is hard enough sometimes without pointless contrivance. There is a story here. It is performed by wonderful actors, and it feels real in an age when realism is all but forbidden by the notion of marketability. And yes, it’s a little spectacular.