“The Spectacular Now” should be titled “The Awesome Now.” Its characters say the word “awesome” more than its protagonist drinks. But this isn’t meant to be a sarcastic jab, rather “The Spectacular Now” captures all of that arrogant (if somewhat naive) ebullience of what it’s like to be a teenager in love, without mocking it, but with total sincerity.
The initial premise of the film seems cliche and set up for disaster — bad boy Sutter (Miles Teller) falls for the nice girl next door Aimee (Shailene Woodley), and his life changes for the better. But just like Sutter is more than the high school slacker, “The Spectacular Now” is more than an overdone coming-of-age story. The simple structure allows director James Ponsoldt (who also directed “Smashed” with its similarly well worn territory of alcoholism) to build complex back stories for characters that are much more than their stereotype.
As with most class clowns, the charming Sutter has a dark reason for his sense of humor. He drinks just like his father, who abandoned his family. It could be easy to turn Sutter into an after school special or another Marissa Cooper-style teenager fulfilling every rebel cliche, but his story is nuanced. It’s clear that Ponsoldt actually respects his teenage characters instead of making them into examples. No melodrama is necessary because being a teenager is melodramatic enough. Teller, for his part, is reminiscent of a young John Cusack, cute in a slightly wonky way and disarmingly smooth and witty for someone so young, yet there is a hidden complexity and pain behind all that bravado.
This explains why someone as unflashy as Aimee, without a speck of makeup on her face but with an intrigue to her, could bring out the troubled side of Sutter. Woodley is such a natural at playing the self-conscious teenager that it seems like she isn’t even acting — she’s one of the true talents of this acting generation. Similarly, the sex scene between Sutter and Aimee is one of the most authentic in a teenage movie ever. It’s awkward yet sweet and much more emotionally intimate than most American movies. Yet Aimee seems to flow into Sutter’s lifestyle too easily, taking on his drinking and issues like they are her own in a way that is underdeveloped at best and unbelievable at worst. Ponsoldt doesn’t give Aimee the same breadth and depth he gives Sutter, and the film ends rather abruptly.
If you were ever in high school, ever in love or want to see two of most promising young actors, see “The Spectacular Now.” It’s awesome.