Sutter Keely, the seemingly self-possessed teenager who prefers to live in “The Spectacular Now,” floats on a cool breeze through high school, outwardly awesome and full of solutions for small-town boredom. So girls fall hard for him, but the sad truth about Sutter that keeps him living in the present and not for the future is what also makes him a “favorite ex-boyfriend,” and provides the tough emotional pull in this eloquent and emotional adaptation of Oklahoman Tim Tharp’s novel.
Beautifully played by Miles Teller, Sutter has a lot of Lloyd Dobler in him, and like John Cusack’s kickboxing enthusiast in “Say Anything,” he falls for a smart girl who usually stays home on weekends, Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley of “The Descendants”). But for all its sweetness and elevated-boombox romance, “Say Anything” was a more idealized story about mismatched teenagers in love. “The Spectacular Now” goes for something more emotionally realistic and does not suffer from that earlier film’s third-act problems — in Tharp’s story, the shortcomings of parents have much more of a causal effect on the teenage characters’ state of being.
Sutter is the king of chill, but the good times are enabled by furtive swigs from a flask and a Big Gulp cup that isn’t filled with 100 percent soda. Aimee is charmed by Sutter, a boy who she thought would never talk to her, and since Sutter is free after his breakup with bombshell cheerleader Cassidy (Brie Larson), they quickly move from sudden acquaintances to actual couple.
The genius of James Ponsoldt’s direction comes from how much he conveys with subtlety. Aimee’s mother is heard but never seen, and all viewers get from her little brother is a gesture. She’s alone in this world but feels responsible for people who will never reciprocate. Aimee and Sutter take one another on as projects, but Sutter needs a lot of work: Some of the damage was inherited from his father and might be too much for one caring person to rectify on her own. The dad is a mystery for most of “The Spectacular Now,” but Kyle Chandler’s jaw-dropping performance clears up everything.
All that said, “The Spectacular Now” would not work without the realistic, natural performances by Teller and Woodley. Both actors project an unusual amount of truth about the real secret lives of American teenagers, especially ones who, for various reasons, must fend for themselves. Woodley was already on most radars as an actress to watch, and “The Spectacular Now” more than validates all that praise that came after “The Descendants.” Teller is the less-tested property, and “Project X,” “21 and Over” and that unspectacular “Footloose” remake say almost nothing about this actor’s ability. But this film should settle any questions about Teller. It’s early but, based on “The Spectacular Now,” he could be one of the greats.
There is one quibble, and it’s a local problem. Tharp’s novel takes place in and around Oklahoma City and contains tons of local color, and at one time, the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“(500) Days of Summer”) was just as locally colorful, but Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) relocated the film’s action to Georgia and Florida. Fans of the novel will miss the place names, but they will recognize everything else.
— George Lang