Each year, there are a handful of movies that, on their surface, seem a lot like The Spectacular Now. A young man or women, in high school or college, find themselves at a crossroads, starts a new relationship/friendship, and eventually grows into themselves. This isn’t anything new; in fact, it’s one of the more tired formulas in cinema, especially indie cinema. But, as The Spectacular Now reminds us, when done right, it can be damn impressive.
Taking place in the kind of small town where every parent looks burned out and prom is held in a half empty gym, The Spectacular Now follows perpetual party guy (and alcoholic in training) Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a high school senior with some serious reservations about moving on into the real world. The film starts with him splitting with his long time girlfriend, then waking up on someone else’s lawn after a long night of booze infused coping. The next morning, he’s discovered by a classmate on her paper route.
That classmate is Aimee Finnicky (Shailene Woodley), a shy girl who’s far removed from Sutter’s popular, partying crowd. The two (of course) strike up a slowly building relationship, but rather then tumbling into the usual cliches or pitfalls, The Spectacular Now uses a smart script and completely developed characters to build an involving, intimate tale about two opposites slowly attaching to one another.
Aimee and Sutter click together because they each are complicit in supporting the others every action because of their own personal fears. Sutter, afraid of life after graduation, drinks constantly and indulges all of Aimee’s dreams and fantasies of post-grad life, her confidence the flip-side of his fear. She encourages and particiaptes in Sutter’s growing alcohol problem because of her fear of losing someone who finally cares for her. Together they can function, dependent on each other to ward off dark thoughts.
Spectacular Now works because it keeps the story small and centered on its characters, not its plot. It moves when it has to, not when it wants to. There are times when we wish we could simply keep watching Sutter and Aimee interact because of how natural and genuine it feels, a tribute to both the writing and the performances of its leads. Woodley, especially, is terrific, giving every every action and word the perfect amount of hesitation, making us aware of how afraid she is of messing things up. It’s a performance that draws us to her in the same way Sutter is drawn to her, and fuses us to their relationship.
There are hardly any missteps until the last ten minutes, which feel just a bit rushed. But even that, along with a somewhat underwhelming (yet appropriate) finale don’t take away from the sheer joy that comes with watching the film. This isn’t a film about characters who are coming of age; they’re coming of self. The Spectacular Now reminds us that even the most familiar set ups and stories can feel refreshing and energized by superb execution.
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